Ben Bradshaw used to be talked of as "the next Jeremy Vine" – an award-winning young reporter who covered the fall of the Berlin Wall and presented The World This Weekend on BBC Radio 4 with an assured poise.
Sir Michael Lyons worked as a local authority executive who made his name with a report on the future of local government funding before swapping town halls for the media spotlight as chairman of the BBC Trust.
Yesterday the new Culture Secretary launched an extraordinary attack on Sir Michael's leadership – and claimed he was more in touch with the Corporation than its boss. The pair clashed over their widely-different views on the future funding of the BBC. Mr Bradshaw made a withering and unexpected attack on the leadership strategy of Sir Michael, 59, and Mark Thompson, the BBC director general, claiming their failings had generated "almost a feeling of despair" among BBC staff.
The Culture Secretary, 48, has emerged as a champion of what he sees as discontented elements within the Corporation and his intimate knowledge of the workings of the BBC may unsettle those in charge. His comments suggest he is still well connected with senior figures in the BBC. He is married to Neal Dalgleish, a Newsnight producer, although there is no evidence that his partner is one of the malcontents. In a stinging rebuke of Mr Thompson and Sir Michael, published yesterday in the Financial Times, Mr Bradshaw claimed senior BBC staff had been left in "despair" by the poor leadership. "[There] are plenty of people within the BBC that do not feel it is a well-led organisation and that is almost for me the most worrying thing," he said. "There is almost a feeling of despair among a lot of highly respected BBC professionals."
His comments were made in respect of Mr Thompson's opposition to the idea of "top-slicing" the licence fee and redistributing a portion of funds to other broadcasters. Mr Bradshaw suggested BBC staff were upset by the "wrong-headed" and "ultimately self-defeating" stance of the BBC leadership, though he said this was "not the only issue" over which there was unhappiness with the BBC's senior management.
The comments appeared to be a pre-emptive strike against Sir Michael, who was yesterday releasing the BBC's annual report, in which he attempted to reduce public anger over the salaries of BBC managers by announcing a suspension of bonuses paid to members of the BBC's executive board. Clearly disturbed by Mr Bradshaw's attack, Sir Michael told journalists yesterday that he would not be responding to what he termed "personal criticism".
But he criticised Mr Bradshaw for speaking out on top-slicing when the Government is still consulting on the issue. "It is indeed surprising for the Secretary of State who has just started a public consultation exercise [on top-slicing] to give the impression he has already made his mind up so firmly," he said. The Culture Secretary then attempted to defuse the escalating row by going on Simon Mayo's show on Radio 5 Live and saying: "It is not personal criticism. It is an appeal for leadership... I'm not accusing any individual of a lack of leadership here."
But by early evening Bectu, the broadcasting union, had pledged to write to Gordon Brown to complain about Mr Bradshaw's apparent position on top-slicing. Gerry Morrissey, general secretary of the union, said: "We are outraged by Ben Bradshaw's statement. The vast majority of people in the BBC would be opposed to top-slicing – it would damage their ability to make programmes and put their jobs at risk. Our intention is to write to the Prime Minister and say 'How can this be an open and transparent consultation when the minister in charge has already decided there will be top-slicing?' "
Last night senior figures in the BBC newsroom reacted with some surprise to the Secretary of State's comments. "I think people here have lots of complaints about our management but I don't think many people here want to see top-slicing because they think it would be the end of the licence fee," said one well-known on-camera journalist. "People are angry about the recent salary revelations, the bonuses and [deputy director general] Mark Byford's car from the railway station to the office at 280 quid a day.
"But I'd be very surprised if many people go along with Ben Bradshaw. They'd probably think Thompson is quite a good strategist, if not worth £800,000 plus a year. He does regular forums with staff and if he gets hostile questions it's not because he is not giving the licence away quickly enough. It's about [Jonathan] Ross and the super presenters and how that impacts on the general perception of us as a wasteful organisation."
Ben Bradshaw, Culture Secretary
* Started on the Express & Echo in Exeter before working for the BBC as Berlin correspondent. Became an MP in 1997 and has been a minister of Heath as well as working in the Department for the Environment and the Foreign Office.
* Married his long-term partner, the senior BBC producer Neal Dalgleish, in 2006.
* Once said: "As a keen gardener I am a regular drowner of slugs in beer."
Sir Michael Lyons, BBC Trust chairman
* Started his career as an economist working in the public sector. Knighted in 2000 for services to local government after serving as the chief executive of Birmingham City Council, Nottinghamshire County Council and Wolverhampton Borough Council.
* Married, with three grown-up children.
* Once said: "My wife really finds it very amusing that I don't watch enough television."