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.

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