Yentob leads the BBC fightback: we're being smeared for exposing Fake Sheikh

BBC’s creative director defends organisation against accusations of political correctness

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The Independent Online

Alan Yentob has accused The Sun newspaper of running a negative campaign against spendthrift BBC bosses as a calculated “swipe back” at Panorama’s recent expose of Mazher “Fake Sheikh” Mahmood, The Sun on Sunday investigative reporter.

In an interview with The Independent, the BBC’s creative director also denied accusations of ingrained left-wing bias at the BBC, most recently made in the wake of coverage of George Osborne’s Autumn Statement, citing this week’s decision by veteran BBC producer Paul Lambert to join Ukip.

“The BBC, despite the fact that one of our prominent journalists has gone to represent Ukip, is forever being accused of being politically correct,” he complained.

Dismissing claims of a leftist bias, he noted the BBC’s bruising battle with Labour over the 2004 Hutton Report and the fact that the current head of BBC News, James Harding, formerly “worked for Rupert Murdoch” as editor of The Times.

“When you think that [BBC political editor] Nick Robinson and [Daily Politics presenter] Andrew Neil are regarded by many as – and certainly their roots are – on the right of politics, this argument that the BBC is full of lefties is not really true at all.”


Mr Yentob also argued that Top Gear, the show equally loved and loathed for its macho petrol-head culture, had a place in “the yin and the yang” of the BBC’s output. “I don’t know whether you’d call Top Gear the yin or the yang,” he said. “[But] Top Gear is a valuable counterpoint to what the BBC is forever being accused of.” Mr Yentob also described the programme’s controversial presenter Jeremy Clarkson as a “brilliant broadcaster”.

Read more: A heartening response to the Corporation’s critics

Claiming credit for helping to persuade Mr Clarkson to return to a relaunched Top Gear in 2002, he defended the show, despite a succession of gaffes and racism controversies – most recently a special programme which caused outrage in Argentina over supposed references to the Falklands War. “Does Top Gear make mistakes from time to time and is there some justice in the fact that not everything went swimmingly? Yes, but that doesn’t alter the fact that Clarkson is a brilliant broadcaster and that his producers are all terrific,” he said.

“If occasionally they cross the line, you know, fine. They have been doing that show for 20 years, for God’s sake. If you count the number of crass errors they are rather fewer than the big hits.”

Alan Yentob has defended Top Gear despite a succession of controversies (Getty)

Mr Yentob was honoured last night by The Media Society for his service to the BBC, with tributes from Mick Jagger, Mel Brooks and Philip Roth.

At a vital moment for the BBC, when its future funding model is under threat, Mr Yentob said he was convinced that “the licence fee is the best way to fund the BBC” and that the organisation would prove its worth. He added that the BBC’s general election coverage would inevitably be “uncomfortable” for some politicians but the broadcaster would be even-handed.

“There will be ups and downs as to whether people think we are being fair but we are determined to be fair – if there is occasionally a complaint or a skirmish, well, so be it.” He said the BBC should not be “meek or timid” in facing critics and, in programme making, should learn to be a “creative hub where you can make mistakes”.

In proving its worth to the public as it heads into funding negotiations, the BBC will next year unveil plans for giving schools, universities and libraries new access to its output and archive. He is in talks with British Library chief executive Roly Keating, a former controller of BBC2, to create a digital archive of the BBC’s literary programmes on radio and television. “It’s incredible, going right back to the early days of radio.”

Mr Yentob said he was “proud” of the decision to make the youth-orientated service BBC3 online only, which has provoked angry criticism.

“A lot of young people are migrating away from linear television and we need to understand how to explore that space and this is a way of doing that with some urgency.”

Re-imagined: Big-screen adaptations

Two documentaries from Alan Yentob’s BBC1 series Imagine are being made into feature films. Helen Mirren will star in a film version of the 2007 documentary “Stealing Klimt”, about a Jewish refugee, Maria Altmann, and her battle to recover five Gustav Klimt paintings stolen from her family by the Nazis.

Ralph Fiennes is directing a film version of 2013’s “Who Took Nanny’s Pictures?”, about the pioneering photographer Vivian Maier, who worked as a nanny in Chicago.

Yentob is currently working on a project with Rupert Everett, in which the actor is filming himself for 18 months as he prepares for a movie project about Oscar Wilde.