Diane Coyle interview: ‘The BBC must kick off its comfy old slippers’

The acting head of the BBC Trust, talks to Ian Burrell about instant changes, holding the fort, and going for the top job

The BBC is failing to represent the “kaleidoscopic” diversity of modern Britain and must do more to avoid peak programmes on BBC1 feeling like “pulling on a pair of comfortable old slippers”, says the acting chairman of the BBC Trust.

Diane Coyle, who took over from Lord Patten last month when he retired on health grounds, says the two “priorities” she has set for her time in charge are to improve the diversity of the BBC and to increase the number of “new and surprising” programmes on BBC1. 

And she confirms that she is considering putting herself forward as permanent chairman of the BBC Trust, a process that is heating up with news that Lord Coe, with the backing of David Cameron and Boris Johnson, is being encouraged to apply for the post.

Ms Coyle’s comments on diversity place added pressure on the BBC in the wake of a high-profile campaign led by Lenny Henry to improve representation of black and other ethnic minorities among the corporation’s staff. The BBC needs to do more to reflect Britain as a whole, she believes, including rural communities, different socio-economic groups and those with strong regional identities.

“I think the one thing that I would like to make progress on most quickly is the diversity of the BBC on screen,” she said.

“It’s a national institution and it has to reflect the diversity of an increasingly kaleidoscopic nation and I don’t think there has been enough progress. They could make progress on that quite quickly.” Channel 4’s current promotion ‘Born Risky’ with its emphasis on diversity and inclusiveness, only serves to highlight a slight lacking in the BBC’s output.

Putting more “older women” on screen could make an immediate difference, she says, and she has called on BBC management to follow the approach of the BBC Children’s department based in Salford. “They have a different kind of look and feel, I think. They have been incredibly successful in this regard.” She is also concerned about lack of representation in BBC programming of people who live outside big cities. A trust report on rural impartiality is due to be published in June.

In July, the BBC Trust will produce its five-yearly TV Services Review. The BBC1 flagship channel needs to do more to improve the “distinctiveness” of its output, says Ms Coyle, particularly in genres such as drama. “What people really care about and what drives their perception of the BBC is that peak BBC1 schedule, and so I think it’s really important to deliver it in the area the audience puts most value on.

“It means things you couldn’t really count on getting anywhere else apart from the BBC. It’s really about innovation.

“It’s hard to say it’s about this genre or that genre; it’s just new and surprising and delighting people in a way they hadn’t thought was possible because it hadn’t entered their imaginations.

“We are really talking about those absolute [programming] heights, particularly in drama, which matters so much to many people, and steering clear of the BBC1 schedule being just too predictable and too much like pulling on a pair of comfortable old slippers.”

After a traumatic period for the BBC Trust, in which it has faced criticism for its handling of issues including the Savile and McAlpine scandals and exorbitant pay-offs and salaries paid to BBC executives, Ms Coyle says she is satisfied that the model for the governing body was “not all that broken”.

But she revealed her fears that growing political pressure was threatening the independence of the BBC: “I would have some concerns about the creeping reduction in the BBC’s independence that has come up through an accumulation of different things.

“There has been the increase in access for the National Audit Office, and one can understand why politicians ask for that, but I think that has got to the very limit of where that can be without actually undermining the BBC’s independence.”

It is a critical time for the BBC as it prepares to enter discussions for the licence fee settlement which will form part of its Royal Charter beyond 2016. The acting chair of the trust indicates that there should be no repeat of the rushed and behind-closed-doors negotiations which took place in 2010 between the then culture secretary Jeremy Hunt and then BBC director-general Mark Thompson, resulting in a settlement which forced the BBC to make £700m of savings.

“The next licence fee negotiation absolutely cannot be a quick deal, it has to be an open process and involve the audience.”

Ms Coyle, a former Treasury adviser who is married to the BBC’s technology correspondent, Rory Cellan-Jones, has just taken a one-day-a-week role as an economics professor at the University of Manchester, in addition to three-and-a- half days a week at the trust, in central London. She has just completed a book on the subject of gross domestic product, and spoke about it last week at the Hay Literary Festival.

She says she has been “shaped by the BBC” and it is “a great privilege” to be leading the trust.

Would she be applying for the full-time role? “I haven’t quite made up my mind about applying for the job permanently or not. It just makes sense to use the experience of these few weeks and take advice about it. I’m not ruling it out.”

Her recent “destination viewing” on the BBC has included the BBC4 detective drama Hinterland, the BBC2 comedy Rev and the BBC1 period drama Call the Midwife. Although she lives in London, she wakes up to Radio 4’s Farming Today (“a really interesting business programme”) and also listens to Radio 3, 6 Music and Magic (“when I’m doing the housework”).

Among the jobs in her in-tray is overseeing the review of BBC management’s controversial decision to take BBC3 off terrestrial television and turn it into an online-only service. “It will go through formal public-value test process, which involves consultation and audience research and discussions with stakeholders. We have in the past said yes to some proposals and no to others, so it’s not a done deal.”

If she does decide to enter the process for appointing the next permanent BBC chairman, she – and those who want to see a corporation that reflects our more “kaleidoscopic” society – will be hoping that choosing the new person is not yet a done deal either.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Sport
footballHe started just four months ago
News
Nigel Farage celebrates with a pint after early local election results in the Hoy and Helmet pub in South Benfleet in Essex
peopleHe has shaped British politics 'for good or ill'
News
One father who couldn't get One Direction tickets for his daughters phoned in a fake bomb threat and served eight months in a federal prison
people... (and one very unlucky giraffe)
Arts and Entertainment
Sink the Pink's 2013 New Year's Eve party
musicFour of Britain's top DJs give their verdict on how to party into 2015
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Arts and Entertainment
(L-R) Amanda Peet as Tina Morris, Melanie Lynskey as Michelle Pierson, Abby Ryder Fortson as Sophie Pierson, Mark Duplass as Brett Pierson and Steve Zissis as Alex Pappas in Togetherness
TV First US networks like HBO shook up drama - now it's comedy's turn
News
i100
Travel
Pool with a view: the mMarina Bay Sands in Singapore
travel From Haiti and Alaska to Namibia and Iceland
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Ashdown Group: Brand Marketing Manager - Essex - £45,000 + £5000 car allowance

£40000 - £45000 per annum + car allowance: Ashdown Group: Senior Brand Manager...

Guru Careers: .NET Developer /.NET Software Developer

£26 - 35k (DOE): Guru Careers: We are seeking a .NET Developer /.NET Software ...

Guru Careers: Graduate Marketing Analyst / Online Marketing Exec (SEO / PPC)

£18 - 24k (DOE): Guru Careers: A Graduate Marketing Analyst / Online Marketing...

Guru Careers: Technical Operations Manager

£Neg. (DOE) + Excellent Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Technical Ope...

Day In a Page

Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that? The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year

Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that?

The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year
Hollande's vanity project is on a high-speed track to the middle of nowhere

Vanity project on a high-speed track to nowhere

France’s TGV network has become mired in controversy
Sports Quiz of the Year

Sports Quiz of the Year

So, how closely were you paying attention during 2014?
Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry, his love of 'Bargain Hunt', and life as a llama farmer

Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry and his love of 'Bargain Hunt'

From Armstrong and Miller to Pointless
Sanchez helps Gunners hold on after Giroud's moment of madness

Sanchez helps Gunners hold on

Olivier Giroud's moment of madness nearly costs them
A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect