Rona Fairhead, the Government’s choice as next chair of the BBC Trust, said today she intends to do the job while still working for banking and retail giants HSBC and PepsiCo and holding on to a large shareholding in publishing company Pearson.
Appearing before MPs, Ms Fairhead, 53, claimed she came to the role “without baggage” but she was questioned over her role as head of HSBC’s risk committee in 2012, when HSBC apologised failing to implement anti money-laundering controls in Mexico. She said: “One has to be realistic and say sometimes bad things do happen and sometimes the controls you think are effective turn out not be so. It’s about how you respond.”
Outside the House of Commons media select committee hearing, Michael Mason-Mahon, leader of an HSBC shareholder class action in America against individual board directors of the bank, including Ms Fairhead, who is a non-executive board director of HSBC Holdings and chair of HSBC North America, claimed she could not continue in the role when heading the BBC’s governing body. “There has to be a conflict of interest,” he said.
Ms Fairhead, who would be the first female chair of the Trust, said she intended to do the £124,000-a-year job as a “three-day-a-week role”, allowing time to continue as a non-executive director of HSBC and PepsiCo, where she joined the board this year. But in times of BBC crisis she would be capable of increasing her commitment to “seven days a week”, she said.
“If you ask anyone who has worked for me they will say I have a relatively large capacity for work, my working week can go very happily to seven days,” she said. “I’m prepared to do that if that’s what the job requires.”
She told the Labour MP Paul Farrelly that she would commit 50 days a year to HSBC. “I do a lot by phone and when I do go to the States, which I do for both Pepsi and HSBC, I tend to do it in a very concentrated way. I get up early in the morning and I work all the way through and I overnight flight back. It has been the life I have led for many years. I just get used to sleeping on planes.”
Ms Fairhead defended the size of the BBC part-time salary. “I know that if I stayed in the private sector a chairman role would attract a much, much larger salary,” she told John Leech MP, who questioned whether she would stand up against excessive BBC executive pay.
When she left Pearson, where she worked for nearly 13 years, she received a £1.1m pay-off. “It’s clearly a lot of money,” she said of the settlement. “But I have to say those [arrangements] were relatively standard within my industry at the level I had and for the role I had done.”
She said she intended to retain her large shareholding in the business. “I still hold a significant number of Pearson shares because I think it’s a good share to hold. If appointed, I would take advice and if I was given advice there was a clear conflict of interest then I would look at that advice and make my judgment.” She said she would consider selling all the shares if it was “a really significant conflict, although that would not be my preference right now”.
Her predecessors, Sir Michael Lyons and Lord Patten, were both party political figures, but Ms Fairhead told MPs: “I have never in my life been politically active.” Her husband had served as a Conservative councillor and stood for Parliament as a Tory candidate. “It’s not my husband that’s applying for this role, it’s myself,” she said.
She denied reports that she was a personal friend of the Chancellor George Osborne. “I have met the Chancellor at formal functions as you might expect of someone who has been in the business world. I certainly am not a personal friend,” she said. “It’s true that his children were at the same school as one of my children, so I confess I saw him across the room at a parents’ evening.”
Ms Fairhead, who has three children, said she had stepped down as a member of the Cabinet Office board and from doing work with the civil service. She had not been approached by any members of the Government to take the role.
At the start of the session Ms Fairhead set out her firm commitment to an independent BBC and the need to protect its editorial impartiality. She later told MPs that she would enter the BBC Charter Renewal process with the “going in position” that the licence fee was the best model for funding the organisation.
Mr Farrelly noted that at Cambridge she was chair of the Law Society before heading into a high-flying business career as a “wheeler-dealer and number cruncher”. He asked: “Why do you think you are the sort of person who should be the overseer and hand on the tiller of a creative organisation like the BBC?”
Ms Fairhead told him that Pearson was a “creative organisation”. She said she and her family enjoyed watching Doctor Who, Sherlock, Strictly Come Dancing and David Attenborough natural history shows. She wakes up to the Today programme and goes to bed after the BBC 10 O’Clock News. A sports fan, she enjoyed Match of the Day as a child and watches the BBC coverage of Six Nations rugby.Reuse content