The straight man, the wise guy and the BBC's answer to an audience of hecklers

Its independence and funding under threat, the corporation has called on Mark Byford to take the heat off after Hutton. Jessica Hodgson reports
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The Independent Online

Mark Byford might just be the perfect foil for the BBC's embattled director general. Where Greg Dyke is streetwise, swaggering and often portrayed as a cockney wise guy, Byford is a hard-working Yorkshireman and just a little grumpy. His dad was a police inspector, so he's respectable and impeccably meritocratic; he can't be accused of being a member of the remote, metropolitan cabal pilloried in the Middle England press as being the power behind the BBC.

Byford, currently in charge of the World Service, has been made BBC deputy director general - a role where he will take responsibility for complaints and editorial standards. His appointment, announced last week, is being seen as an attempt to pre-empt the report by Lord Hutton, due in mid-January, into the death of the weapons expert David Kelly.

Byford was the favourite of Dyke's predecessor, John Birt, and is associated with the old regime. He was so liked by Birt that a job was created for him as head of the World Service, pushing another executive, Sam Younger, out of place. As a loyal BBC "lifer" - in contrast to Dyke, who has spent most of his life in the commercial sector - he is untainted by the tabloid populism with which Dyke is associated. It is this, arguably, that got the BBC into hot water with the now-notorious Today report about the Government's weapons of mass destruction dossier; some critics argue that the Radio 4 programme is more willing to take "flyers" with stories than it should be. Byford's links with the more cerebral, protestant Birt regime will stand him in good stead as the champion of the viewer and listener, the straight man.

But whether this will be enough to stave off damning criticism of the BBC, as well as threats to its independence and the licence fee, is open to question.

Byford's appointment sets out to address the key weakness in the BBC's editorial system, exposed to the cold light of day by Hutton: that the corporation has no adequate or fast way of dealing with complaints. One of the most shocking moments in the Hutton inquiry was the revelation that it had taken several weeks for Dyke to be informed about the increasingly furious complaints of the Prime Minister's former spokesman, Alastair Campbell.

That an executive - or "the second-most important person in the management structure", in Dyke's words - should have specific responsibility for editorial compliance is an attempt both to provide greater transparency and to give the viewer and listener more confidence in this process.

Byford will head up a new complaints department, which will be given greater prominence in the BBC's editorial hierarchy. A new post of controller of complaints will also be created. In the past, all complaints were referred up to the head of editorial policy, but now they will go straight to the deputy director general.

Dyke has admitted that the BBC's handling of the Campbell complaints after the reports on Today by Andrew Gilligan did little to instil confidence: "When I look back, I wish - on the day Alastair Campbell launched that attack and demanded answers to a host of questions within a few hours - that we'd said: 'No, stop, we'll have a full internal inquiry and the answers to those questions can wait.' That would have been better."

But no matter how hard and how publicly the BBC flagellates itself, there's no guarantee that this will ward off the biggest threat - that the Government will use Hutton to force the BBC's board of governors under the yoke of its new media watchdog, Ofcom. For years, the BBC's commercial rivals have argued that the 11 men and women who sit on the board have a conflict of interest. They are required both to champion and support their journalists and programme makers, and to regulate them. Because the BBC's independence from government has traditionally been seen as sacrosanct, the organisation has successfully fought off previous attempts to make it accountable to the same regulator with ultimate jurisdiction over companies such as ITV and Channel 4. There is, says the BBC, much merit in this argument.

Hutton, however, also exposed the weaknesses of a system whereby individuals with a vested interest in finding in favour of the BBC's journalism are required to be judge and jury over its miscreants.

Peter Bazalgette, who is chairman of the biggest independent television producer, Endemol (the company behind Big Brother), has said the governors' job is a contradiction in terms. "Can the BBC be both regulator and cheerleader?" he asked earlier this year. "Post Hutton, for the governors, the game is up. The system has been exposed as a sham. This is not just an isolated mistake, it is an accident waiting to happen."

His remarks have been echoed by the former director of programmes for ITV, David Liddiment, who has described the system as "dysfunctional".

Last week, the Culture Secretary, Tessa Jowell, launched a public consultation on the future of the BBC. She has demanded a "vigorous and open" debate - the most robust in its 80-year history. The Government will be taking an army of special advisers around Britain to canvass views on the licence fee and whether the BBC should continue to be funded by the public. In the background, a committee headed by the former Channel 5 chief executive David Elstein is examining the alternatives to the licence fee against a growing clamour from the commercial sector for the BBC's £2.5bn annual revenue to be curbed. The stakes have never been higher.

Publicly, the BBC is putting on a brave face, but privately, some sources believe the appointment of Byford may have a more desperate motive even than damage limitation. "What some people are saying is that Dyke is clearing the decks in case Hutton is particularly damning of him and he has to quit. If that was the case, the last thing he would want would be to preside over a messy succession battle," said a senior BBC insider.

Hutton has kept his cards close to his chest but both the Government and the BBC are expecting a fairly damning judgement on their behaviour. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport, having decided to leave the role of the BBC governors largely unchanged in the recent Broadcasting Act, now admits that the possibility of making them accountable to Ofcom is back on the table.

Byford may be about to get his place in the sun. If nothing else, he will help usher in a new era of seriousness at the BBC.