Ross's future still in doubt, BBC admits

MPs vent their anger at corporation bosses over obscene phone calls
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The Independent Online

The return of Jonathan Ross to the BBC was thrown into question yesterday as the head of the BBC Trust said that the broadcaster could face further action over the Andrew Sachs phone-call fiasco.

Sir Michael Lyons told MPs that the future of the chat-show host had yet to be decided by the trust, which would meet tomorrow to discuss the corporation's handling of the affair.

The star – the corporation's most highly-paid presenter – is due to return to the BBC on 24 January after a three-month suspension imposed for obscene phone calls he made to Andrew Sachs, the Fawlty Towers actor, with the comedian Russell Brand.

But Sir Michael said: "The trust has not finished its deliberations and all of these matters are subject to our final discussions. There is nothing that is ruled out ahead of the final deliberations of the BBC Trust."

Giving evidence to an all-party committee of MPs yesterday, Sir Michael said the BBC had "crossed a boundary" when the answering-machine messages were broadcast on Brand's Radio 2 show. Sir Michael and the BBC director general Mark Thompson faced anger from MPs yesterday over the affair, which led to the resignation of Brand, and the departures of Lesley Douglas, the Radio 2 controller, and David Barber, the Radio 2 head of specialist music and compliance.

Mr Thompson said: "I am very aware that this was a very serious editorial lapse. There were errors in judgement."

But members of the Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee accused Mr Thompson and Sir Michael of "arrogance" and "lamentable slowness" in the handling of the affair, and condemned them as "out of touch" for defending Ross's reported £6m-a-year salary.

Mr Thompson said: "This is an example of a really serious editorial lapse which is not close to a boundary where you can debate it. It is absolutely well on the wrong side of the line in terms of invasion of privacy and in terms of a lapse in duty of care to some of the individuals – Mr Sachs's granddaughter being at the centre of that.

"I would say that it was entirely appropriate that the rest of the media should point to that."

But Philip Davies, a Conservative member of the committee, retorted: "Even when you apologised, you did not check your apology with Andrew Sachs to make sure he was happy with the wording that was broadcast on Radio 2. How can you preside over such an arrogant organisation that does not even check with the person who has been offended whether they are happy with the apology that has been broadcast?"

Nigel Evans, another Tory, criticised the "lamentable slowness" of management to respond. But Sir Michael said: "There was no lack of speed. This is something I do not accept. I refute and reject any allegations that there were more actions that the trust should have taken."

Mr Thompson defended Ross's salary. "I think, if the BBC has to have top talent, you have to accept that. Even when you grow your own talent, people are on the phone," he said.

The BBC faced criticism for failing to dismiss Ross for gross misconduct. But Sir Michael said: "The primary failing is not the antics of performers, it's the fact it was allowed to go out. Until we have finished our investigations, I would be careful about terms like gross misconduct which have contractual implications."

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