Brass Eye: The cost of controversy

After Brass Eye, Channel 4's chairman Vanni Treves is in the spotlight. What does the future hold?

Louise Jury,Jade Garrett
Tuesday 31 July 2001 00:00 BST

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


When Channel 4 decided to broadcast the episode of its satirical series Brass Eye which has now turned into a major political row, the decision went all the way to the chairman of the board, Vanni Treves.

Outside media circles and the law, where he was a partner at City firm Macfarlanes for years, his strange-sounding name (his words) was probably little known until this year.

But in recent months, this plain speaking, Italian-born 60-year-old, the legal adviser to the millionaire Sir John Paul Getty, the chairman of the London Business School and former solicitor to the Royal Academy, has suddenly found himself firmly in the public eye – and under pressure.

Professing a strong sense of public duty, he took on the chairmanship of the troubled insurance company Equitable Life in February – and waived a proffered £300,000 salary to do it, taking a considerably smaller sum for Macfarlanes instead.

As a consequence, he has been receiving up to 4,000 letters a week and hundreds of e-mails from anxious and angry policy-holders.

He admitted two months ago that he sometimes regretted taking on the job, and that it had worried Angela, his wife of 30 years. "Neither of us is used to much publicity, and suddenly I find radio cars turning up outside my house. Some tough things have been written about me, and it takes longer than I'd like to get used to that," he said.

And that was well before the storm erupted around Brass Eye.

Yet when he took over as the chairman of the Channel 4 board at the beginning of 1998, he could scarcely have expected plain sailing at a television station renowned for courting controversy, whether by showing Martin Scorsese's film The Last Temptation of Christ or angering the regulators with programmes such as The Word and Eurotrash. Although not common, it was certainly not unprecedented for programmes to be discussed at board level. "If we feel something's going to be controversial and have knock-on effects for the channel as a whole, we want the non-executive board members to be in on the decision and fully informed," a Channel 4 insider said yesterday.

Vanni Treves was born in Florence in 1940. His father, who had just completed a doctorate in English literature, joined the Italian resistance and was killed in the battle to liberate Florence. The young Vanni spent most of the war in hiding, before moving to England with his mother at the age of five. He won a scholarship to St Paul's public school, another to Oxford followed by a Fulbright scholarship to the University of Illinois.

"I couldn't speak a word of English when I arrived, but this country has been incredibly generous to me and I went on to have a fantastic life here," he said after accepting the job of trying to sort out Equitable Life. "I don't want angels breaking into song, but I have done very well and I want to do some sort of public service in return."

The backdrop to his working career has been the City law firm of Macfarlanes, which he joined in 1963, working his way up to senior partner. Along the way he took on directorships, including the advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi in the days before brothers Maurice and Charles were ousted in an acrimonious boardroom battle over finances. As an expert in corporate governance, he concedes this was not his finest moment. He resigned.

But Tim Bell, who worked closely with Treves at Saatchi and Saatchi, regards him as "a very proper person" and was surprised that he had given Brass Eye his approval. "He's always keen to advise on good behaviour and not to push the boundaries," Lord Bell said. "Whatever decisions he takes, they are always well thought out and honourable. Equally, he would have no problem in admitting a mistake, if he felt he had made one."

Rob Goffee, deputy dean at the London Business School where Treves is chair of the governors, agreed. "He has some very strong views, which can ruffle a few feathers," Professor Goffee said. "But he is also a very good listener. He is hugely energetic and is eminently capable of switching from one thing to another. I've seen him chair meetings where there are lots of academics present and he is very good at keeping things on track. He has a good sense of humour and is very resilient, which will serve him well now."

City observers who have watched Treves in action over the Equitable Life affair say he gives the impression of plain-speaking but, in the best manner of a lawyer, is careful only to give away what he is happy to divulge. "Policyholders think he's a bit arrogant, but they have quite a lot of respect for him. They think he can get the job done," one said.

Charles Saumarez Smith, the director of the National Portrait Gallery where Treves was a low-key but effective fundraiser, said he could think of no one better suited to responding sensibly to the current row. "He is very level-headed and has a very broad back," Dr Saumarez Smith said. "In fact, I can't think of anyone with a temperament better suited to [Channel 4]. He's very experienced, very sensible and exudes calm and rationality."

He may need it.

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