Lord Patten, the chairman-designate of the BBC Trust, told MPs today that he would not resign his membership of the Conservative party or cease his paid advisory work for BP once he starts in the £110,000-a-year job at the top of Britain's public broadcaster. The peer and former Conservative cabinet member – who also admitted that he "hardly watches television" and complained that BBC bosses wanted to paid as much as "bankers from Barclays" – did say he would stop taking the Conservative whip in the Lords. He also pledged to resign from his position as president of Richmond Park Conservative Association, but said that he would remain a card-carrying Tory because the "protocols are clear that that isn't a requirement" and that he had "entirely left out all political ambitions". Lord Patten was giving evidence to MPs on the Commons culture, media and sport select committee in the first ever "pre-appointment hearing" for the position. Subject to the consent of the committee, Patten will be appointed to the job – although ministers will only withdraw his nomination if there is an all-party objection to him taking the position. However, his decision to maintain his membership makes him unique among modern BBC chairmen, leading Tory MP Philip Davies to ask whether Patten would be perceived as a "Conservative party stooge". Patten replied to that by saying: "Some people would say that, but I don't think that it would be true". Patten's predecessor, Sir Michael Lyons, has been a Labour councillor and adviser to Gordon Brown – but when he became chairman he allowed his membership of the Labour party to lapse. However, Patten said he did not see that as a precedent because "previous appointments haven't been political vestal virgins". Gavyn Davies was a Labour party member when he applied to become chairman of the BBC in 2001 – but he resigned his membership when he was confirmed as the nominee for the job at the time. Davies had also previously been a Labour donor, giving £10,000. When Sir Christopher Bland was nominated to be chairman of the BBC in 1996 he said he would not renew his party membership when it next fell due, saying then that is job was "to look after the impartiality of the BBC" which meant that he could not be "a member of a political party".
Lord Patten was chairman of the Conservative party in the runup to the tight 1992 election, where he lost his seat, during which time his job was to complain to the BBC and other broadcasters about allegedly unfair coverage on behalf of the party. But he said he would have failed in his job if he "hadn't been able to demonstrate" that he could act impartially. Patten did have some support from his position from Tom Watson MP, a Labour member, who said he "did agree" with him keeping his party membership. However, Watson pressed Patten as to whether there would be a conflict with Patten's paid position as a member of BP's international advisory board. Patten said that he had only just joined the board, which meets twice a year to advise the chairman and chief executive of BP on "strategic and geopolitical issues", and added that if he thought "there was a question of a conflict" he would have to resign.
However, Watson noted that the advisory board had helped BP's management with the Gulf of Mexico oil spill according to the BP website. He asked whether he could advise BP and chair the BBC in the event that BP was caught up in a similar incident – adding: "So you are resigning from BP if there is another oil spill, but not until then". Otherwise Patten largely confined himself to a familiar defence of the BBC, saying the broadcaster was "one of our greatest national institutions" and that it was a "huge honour to help steer the BBC from an analogue to a digital age". He conceded that there was some imperfections, warning that a "compliance culture" had emerged that "a lot of the best programme-makers had found an inhibition". On executive pay, Patten did start by talking tough, by criticising "the ambition of BBC employees to be paid almost the same as a bankers at Barclays". But when asked about whether the pay of director general Mark Thompson was too high, he said that the next DG should be "paid less" than the current £838,000. When pressed by Therese Coffey MP if Thompson should take a pay cut, Patten said "he has already taken one" – and gave no further indication of an impending cut.
More entertainingly, though, Patten conceded that it was true that "he hardly watched television". When asked when he had last watched EastEnders he said that it was "even longer than when I last had McDonald's". Later he added that "a definition of a celebrity was somebody I'd never heard of" before admitting: "I watch the programmes that you'd expect somebody of a background to. That's who I am – I'm 66, white and well educated." Patten said he was a regular listener of Today on Radio 4, as well as Radio 3, but only caught Radio 1 when he trying to change channels between the speech and classical music station. He confessed that he never listened to the recently reprieved 6 Music – but added that he expected the BBC job to "extend my cultural horizons". When asked about his viewing, Patten revealed that he had watched Mud Sweat and Tractors: the story of Agriculture on BBC4 on Wednesday, the night before the hearing, before staying on that channel to view Time to Remember, a programme that used 1950s newsreels to explore the sacrifices made by people during the war. That prompted David Cairns to complain that "I sense your idea of dumbing down is watching BBC2", but in a populist move, Patten conceded that he had switched over from BBC4. "Last night I watched MasterChef," he replied in an attempt to show that he was not at all frightened by BBC1.