BBC stars face 'sizeable pay cuts'

The Controller of BBC1 Jay Hunt, will widen the appeal of her channel, while taking a tough line with her star presenters, she tells Ian Burrell
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The Independent Online

Unlike her close friends Natasha Kaplinsky, Fiona Bruce and Sophie Raworth, the controller of BBC1 Jay Hunt has never remotely harboured ambitions of appearing on television screens. Indeed, rather inexplicably, she approaches the prospect of having her photograph taken with the sort of trepidation normally associated with having root canal surgery.

She is a former editor of the BBC's Six O'Clock News and One O'Clock News, and has worked in senior roles on Panorama and Newsnight and has always known what side of the camera was for her. "It was a saying in news that it was the power or the glory," she says. "I was in the gallery when the bombs started falling in Baghdad during the first Gulf War. That was an extraordinary place to be and I was very happy to be behind the scenes deciding what we were going to do next."

Hunt, 41, is a year into her role as custodian of Britain's most watched television channel. After her appointment, following the departure of her predecessor Peter Fincham over the Crowngate scandal, one tabloid ludicrously branded her a "dumbed-down blonde". But though she may be nervous of being pictured, she has no insecurities about her track record.

"I've made Panoramas, edited Newsnight during a general election, made complicated documentaries and formatted factual shows. There are many things I could be called but I think a dumbed-down blonde is an unlikely one, but I'm pretty relaxed about it," she says, before pointing out that her CV extends beyond the newsroom.

"I took an active decision to leave news and move into the wider area of television. [Being Controller of BBC] Daytime was an incredibly good grounding, it teaches you storytelling, driving value and having an acute understanding of what audiences really appreciate."

In "driving value", she says she has taken a tough line over the salaries of presenters. "We are asking a lot of key talent to take sizeable cuts in their pay and in the main they've been quite receptive to that," she says. "If we have to lose people because they are not prepared to engage with us because of the efficiency agenda then we will lose them." But she appears to regard her highest-paid presenter as value for money. "Friday Night with Jonathan Ross has been on an incredible run – fantastic interviews with Tom Hanks and Lionel Richie. He's a fantastic entertainer and we are lucky to have him on the channel."

Though she admits to having inherited from Fincham a channel in good shape, Hunt continually refers to the need to "reach a wider audience". "I hope my BBC1 will speak to a wider range of the audience than it has spoken to for quite a long time," she says. "When you run a channel like BBC1 you've got to be listening all the time to what viewers want and looking at how society is changing."

She makes a great effort to get out of London to find out how her channel is regarded outside the Metropolitan bubble. Thus, after a long family journey in a rented yellow camper van nicknamed Daisy, she recently found herself in a farmhouse kitchen on the Isle of Wight discussing with a farmer the merits of Countryfile, which she has moved to a more prominent position in the Sunday schedule. She has also commissioned a series called Village SOS, in which six entrepreneurs will be given the chance to relocate to the country in an attempt to regenerate ailing rural communities. "We are in a country where rural communities can feel under-served, local post offices closing, pubs closing. How can we make these fantastic places to live again, bring the heart back to those communities?"

Younger viewers are another area she has targeted, introducing the Saturday night all-action game show Total Wipeout. "A year ago, a show featuring people bouncing off big red balls and falling in the mud for BBC1 would be [seen as] a huge risk."

This populist instinct is reflected in her agitation when reminded of the fashionable view that America does television drama better than Britain. "If anything riles me it's that particular argument because it starts from a position of saying that making compelling drama that millions of people watch is somehow a lesser art than making drama that 300,000 viewers watch," she says. "It's incredibly important to redress the balance here. Spooks was completely genre defining, Ashes to Ashes and Life on Mars have redefined the way we can do history through drama. The notion that in this country we can't do great drama is ridiculous. We make great drama that millions of people enjoy week in and week out, from EastEnders dealing with complicated issues like grooming of children by paedophiles, through to Casualty serving 5-6 million every Saturday night. It completely misrepresents BBC1 and the British drama industry specifically to say that we just can't make great content."

Though she says she enjoys shows such as The Wire and Mad Men (both shown on the BBC), she is frustrated by the way they dominate the drama debate. "We all talk to one another in that very Metropolitan-focused way about 'I've bought the box set.' I think we've got to be careful that we don't drift into quite a snobbish place where compelling drama that millions enjoy is somehow the second-class citizen."

She is excited about Garrow's Law, a drama written by Tony Marchant and set in Georgian England, telling the story of the origins of the legal defence system. "It's a fantastic collaboration between factual and drama to create an immersive history piece which should also feel like a period drama." Once again she says she wants riskier pieces that appeal to "different sorts of audience", citing a forthcoming adaptation of Small Island, Andrea Levy's story of Caribbean immigration, and asking "a few years ago, would we have taken on a piece like that?"

Her most obvious changes are in factual programming. "There was an opportunity to revitalise some of those brands on the factual slate to bring them to different sorts of audiences. Watchdog is a case in point – I don't see why BBC1 can't be a one-stop shop for consumer journalism." She promises to "bring contemporary art to modern audiences" and to champion authored documentary, with forthcoming pieces on soldiers seriously wounded in Iraq and a survivor's memoir of the 1989 Marchioness Thames river boat disaster. And although she has inherited the BBC's flagship channel at a point when it has lost rights to England football internationals and the FA Cup, she takes heart from the coverage of Formula 1 and the impending start of Wimbledon. "It would be lovely to have more football," she admits. "[But] I don't think the cupboard is exactly bare."

Born in Australia, she came to England aged 13, moving around the fringes of London ("I'm a Home Counties girl") in accordance with her father's job (he is now an emeritus professor at the London Business School). After Cambridge she dedicated herself to the corporation ("I've grown up at the BBC and I'm incredibly proud of what it does") despite being briefly lured to Channel Five before she took the BBC1 job.

And yet, Hunt, who talks at a hundred miles an hour, is quite unlike many BBC careerists, joking easily and referring to "the boss class" as if she's not part of it. Her BBC credentials might be impeccable but she appears to understand that there is life beyond the media village. "The most important thing in this job is making sure that the channel remains relevant," she says. "I want to preside over a channel that speaks to everyone in this country and reflects the Britain that I live in."