Weeks before the Kids Company scandal erupted, I had a message from someone deep inside New Broadcasting House saying there were ‘Jones-esque fights’ going on ‘inside the BBC’ about a story which was going to be unpopular with managers. He meant ‘me-esque’: it was a reference to my battle with BBC mandarins about the decision not to show the Newsnight film I had made with Liz MacKean exposing Jimmy Savile as a paedophile a year before he died. That error of judgement and the McAlpine scandal which followed eventually led to the resignation of George Entwistle as director-general.
Some involved in the present showdown even feared that, if they persevered, they might be forced to leave the BBC, as Liz and I had done, and the parallels with our battle with management over Savile were obvious. But what was the story about?
Then I heard Alan Yentob had been seen prowling the corridors, leaning on Newsnight, haranguing the reporter Lucy Manning and escorting Camila Batmanghelidjh into the Today studio. After Savile, it should have been abundantly clear that managers shouldn’t interfere with investigations close to home, but here was Yentob trying to influence the Batmangate probe into the charity he chaired. It also felt a bit like the Panorama investigation in 2013 into Comic Relief’s dodgy investments. That was delayed after celebrities appealed to the great and the good in the BBC.
The 68-year-old arts supremo is the ultimate member of the ‘officer class’ at the BBC. As creative director, Yentob is paid £180,000, but he also fronts the Imagine arts series — a job he gave himself in 2003 — and for that the BBC pays him another £150,000. Not only that, but having declared his chairmanship of Kids Company he nonetheless spent £100,000 of BBC money making a film for Imagine about an exhibition promoting the charity. Conflict of interest, anybody?
For many years, officer-class expenses were off limits. We knew Yentob held a Glastonbury party at his Somerset home in 2002 and charged it to the BBC. We knew he had the use of a BBC chauffeur — or at least a driver, paid for by the BBC, whom he used regularly. We knew a BBC probe into his expenses in 2004 cleared him of dishonesty but found he had taken ‘insufficient care’.
In 2010 the BBC started publishing management expenses and it emerged that Yentob had charged the BBC £3,381 for a business-class flight from London to New York. His reaction was defiant. ‘When I went to New York,’ he said, ‘I was filming in the afternoon and I then returned within about 24 hours back to London back to work straight away. Do you think I should have travelled economy? I wouldn’t have been capable of doing the job.’
He seemed unaware that that’s exactly what ordinary BBC employees do all the time. When I was on Newsnight, it was routine to take an economy flight from London to Los Angeles or San Francisco or wherever, pick up a crew and carry on filming till five in the morning UK time, and then (24 hours after you’d got up that day) pile into a hotel, grab some sleep and fly straight back. We wouldn’t expect the licence-fee-payer to pay thousands over the odds for more legroom and a fancier meal.
Then there’s the ‘Yentob lift’. When the BBC moved into the billion-pound ice cube at Portland Place in 2011, the architects forgot to install functioning stairs. There’s a spiral staircase which vanishes after a couple of floors and then elsewhere some zigzag stairs that look like they’re straight off a snakes and ladders board. As a result, the lifts are ridiculously busy, unless you’ve got your own….
A glass tube containing a small transparent elevator slices up through the middle of the building, passing the kitchenettes on each floor where you can make yourself a cup of instant coffee. As you pour in the boiling water, it is not uncommon to see a stubbly grey head emerge from the glass tube, followed by a plump torso in a dark suit clutching a folding bike, and then the last thing you see is Yentob’s feet, shod in trendy running shoes, disappearing into the ceiling. There’s no sign on this elevator saying it’s for Alan’s use only, but it is known as the ‘Yentob lift’, and I’ve rarely seen anyone else use it.
During the investigation into Savile and the BBC, he was quizzed by Dame Janet Smith; we don’t yet know what he told her because it hasn’t been published. After three years, the report is finally ready, but it is being held back, apparently on police advice, to protect any ongoing inquiries. Yentob was questioned about why, as Controller of BBC1, he pulled Jim’ll Fix It off air in 1993, when it was still popular.
He is also likely to have been asked by Dame Janet about the Louis Theroux documentary When Louis Met Jimmy, which was made while he was the BBC’s director of television and raised the paedophile rumours. The questions will have come down to what he knew (if anything) and when he knew it.
A BBC colleague of mine who had been abused as a child wrote to Tony Hall to complain about the Savile affair. In his email (copied to me) he says he approached Yentob just after Panorama broadcast a film about whether or not there had been a cover-up at the BBC (the film included clips of Liz MacKean and me talking about what the BBC knew). He claims that Yentob denounced us. ‘Liz MacKean and Meirion Jones are traitors to the BBC,’ Yentob told him. He strongly denies saying this, but it wouldn’t be the first time he had complained about people breaking the BBC’s code of omertà. Back in 2004, when he’d been investigated over his expenses, he told the Independent, ‘What are the rules about whistleblowers? … in public life now the scrutiny is problematic … anyone can say anything they like, apparently.’
Yentob is obviously talented, unlike some in the BBC officer class who have risen without trace, but his current status owes something to his relationship with Tony Hall. When he was interviewed by the Guardian last year, he was able to just borrow the DG’s office on the spur of the moment — ‘Tony and I are very close,’ he said.
In that interview, he claimed credit for Hall getting the job after George Entwistle quit. Insiders now also speculate that it was Yentob who advised Hall to accept George Osborne’s deal on pensioners’ TV licences, whereby the Corporation agreed to pick up the tab for pensioners’ free TV licences until 2020. That will cost the BBC one fifth of its annual budget.
Tony Hall reminds me a little of Aethelred the Unready 1,000 years ago (with Yentob standing in as his key adviser, the Archbishop of Canterbury). When the Vikings — sorry, the Chancellor — turned up demanding £750 million from the BBC, Hall had two options: fight or pay the Danegeld. The Vikings promised they would never come back to demand more money but, like politicians, the Vikings weren’t known for keeping promises. They started treating Aethelred as a sort of medieval cashpoint, until they’d taken out 100 tons of silver. This they celebrated in the traditional way, by having a feast at their camp in Greenwich, kidnapping the Archbishop, and bludgeoning him to death with ox bones.
Not that I’m suggesting Yentob faces quite the same fate at the hands of the government — not yet, anyway. But his forthcoming grilling by the House of Commons Public Administration Committee, which is investigating the Batmangate affair, should make for interesting viewing.
Alan Yentob and Kids Company
Alan Yentob has faced calls to resign from the BBC because of his links to Kids Company, the charity run by Camila Batmanghelidjh that closed earlier this year in spite of receiving over £25 million in public money. He has been summoned to appear before the Public Administration Committee, the House of Commons select committee chaired by Bernard Jenkin, which is looking into the charity’s closure. Yentob is likely to be asked about the following things:
- The emails he sent to officials at the Treasury in 2002 lobbying them to write off a £689,999 payment that Kids Company owed to HM Revenue and Customs. The demand for payment was subsequently dropped.
- The BBC’s decision to commission and broadcast a documentary about Kids Company in 2005 called Tough Love.
- His decision to feature a Kids Company exhibition in an Imagine film he made for BBC1 in 2010 called Art is Child’s Play.
- His telephone call to Newsnight staff hours before it broadcast a damning report into Kids Company earlier this year. According to the Daily Mail, he tried to ‘influence the direction’ of the programme, although he wasn’t successful.
- The email sent to civil servants on 2 June and signed by Yentob warning that the closure of Kids Company would mean a ‘high risk of arson attacks on government buildings’ as well as ‘looting’ and ‘rioting’.
- The email also claimed that the ‘communities’ served by Kids Company could ‘descend into savagery’ if the charity closed.
- This was part of a lobbying effort to persuade the Cabinet Office to give the charity a £3 million grant. Civil servants across government described the email as ‘absurd’, ‘hysterical’ and ‘extraordinary’, but the £3 million was given to Kids Company anyway. The charity closed shortly afterwards.
(Lead photo: David Levene/Eyevine)