‘Alan Yentob to go’ - is it just wishful thinking?

Oct 13, 2010
Nigel Horne

Friends cannot believe Alan Yentob would quit the Beeb. On the other hand, he can certainly afford to...

Is one of the big beasts of the BBC's creative wing, the Commes des Garcons-suited, Ralph Lauren polo-shirted Alan Yentob, really about to leave the corporation, as part of its effort to impress on the government that it has noticed there's a recession on?
The BBC has now confirmed media speculation that, following the dismissal of deputy director-general Mark Byford, it has made Sharon Bayley's job redundant.

She is the £310,000-a-year 'director of marketing, communications and audience' - the sort of job no one quite understands within the BBC, let alone looking in from the outside.

But the BBC has declined to comment on further speculation in the Times today that Yentob will go too, as part of the current cost-saving shake-up.

Yentob, 63, is a BBC television man to his fingertips. He started as a graduate trainee in 1968 and has never worked anywhere else.

He started and oversaw the award-winning Arena documentary strand, and has been controller of both BBC1 and BBC2. He can take credit for bringing such smart-but-popular programming as Absolutely Fabulous and Have I Got News for You to television.

Today, he is paid £180,000-plus to be the BBC's creative director - a role with no department to run, which critics see a mere thank-you for a long-serving career. However, the job does demand that he sits on the BBC Direction Group, responsible for the day-to-day running of the corporation.

He also earns an unspecified sum - which some put at £120,000 a year or more - for presenting the arts documentary strand, Imagine.

The Times suggests he might give up his executive role and continue presenting Imagine on a freelance basis.

There is no doubt Yentob could afford to make the change. He has been entitled since he hit 60 to his BBC final salary pension, which is estimated to be worth up to £200,000 a year, and even without freelance TV work, he's got the safety net of a successful family business behind him - Dents Gloves, which his twin brother, Robert Yentob, runs as chief executive.

But why Yentob would leave the BBC - or why the BBC would want rid of him - is a mystery. Friends of Yentob contacted by The First Post this morning say he still appears to be enjoying one of the best jobs in TV, and the BBC rates him highly.  

No London arts party is complete without Yentob (or Botney as Private Eye likes to call him) and his starry contacts made over four decades of arts programme-making - from David Bowie to Mick Jagger - are pretty much unrivalled at the BBC.

He is also a great survivor, who has come through regimes as disparate as John Birt's and Michael Grade's. Can he really not survive that of Mark Thompson, the current director-general?

It's possible the Times story says more about the Murdoch-owned newspaper than it does about Yentob and Thompson. With his home in Notting Hill and country pile in Somerset, his passion for the Beeb, and his comfortable on-screen presence, Yentob is exactly the sort of "smug" BBC man who infuriates the Murdoch empire.

Tensions between the Times and other UK media are particularly high at present due to the row over Murdoch's ambition to buy up those shares in BSkyB he doesn't already own.

Yesterday, in an extraordinary show of solidarity, it emerged that the owners of the Daily Telegraph, the Mirror and the Guardian ­ and, crucially, Mark Thompson of the BBC ­ had written to Business Secretary Vince Cable protesting that Murdoch's planned full takeover of Sky would have "serious and far-reaching consequences for media plurality".

Today, the Times devoted an editorial to the subject - picking on Thompson, who it claimed had made "a serious and surprising error" in putting his name to the campaign.

First, the paper argued, Thompson has "embroiled his taxpayer-funded organisation in a political and commercial battle that it should have nothing to do with". Second, he has made the BBC a player in a story its reporters will have to cover. Third, by arguing against Murdoch's growing empire, he has undermined his argument that we have nothing to fear from the continued expansion of the BBC.

So, not for the first time, the BBC is public enemy number one at News International and the idea that Yentob is off could indeed be wishful thinking.

On the other hand, anything is possible as, a week before the dreaded spending review is announced, Mark Thompson tries to persuade this government that the BBC is acting responsibly in an era of belt-tightening.

Yentob could be doing his executive colleagues a big favour by extricating himself from an expensive role created especially for him, which would not need to be filled if he does indeed step down. We shall see.

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