David Attenborough: big BBC salaries are huge embarrassment

Presenter says he fears row over payoffs could damage corporation and funding cut would be 'catastrophe'

Sir David Attenborough, one of the BBC's longest-standing presenters, has described the big salaries of senior management as a "huge embarrassment" and said it would be a "catastrophe" if the corporation's funding was cut.

Attenborough spoke out in the wake of the latest controversy around executive pay at the BBC, where £60m was paid to outgoing executives over an eight-year period, including more than £1m to the former deputy director general Mark Byford. BBC executives past and present were roundly condemned by MPs on the Commons public accounts committee on Monday, with its chair, the Labour MP Margaret Hodge, accusing them of "covering their backs" over the payoff scandal.

Speaking on Monday, just before the committee hearing, the naturalist and broadcaster, whose latest BBC2 series, Rise of Animals: Triumph of the Vertebrates, begins later this month, said: "It doesn't require me to say that it is a huge embarrassment that salaries of that size are being paid in a public service organisation."

Asked if he was worried that the controversy could damage the BBC, Attenborough said: "Very much so. The BBC is in my view one of the most important strands in the cultural life of this country … and it is going through a bad patch. I just hope that it will emerge from the bad patch with the standards that made it great still there."

Attenborough, who celebrated 60 years in broadcasting last year, said there were "plenty of people with interests which conflict with those of the BBC … and would be glad to see the BBC diminished. Ideally they would like the BBC to be exterminated but they realise that would never happen, or should not happen. But what could happen is it is diminished or it is so starved of money that it has to abandon many of its public service responsibilities. If it did that it would no longer be the BBC and that would be a catastrophe for the country."

Attenborough, who was a controller of BBC2 in the 1960s and was appointed the BBC's director of programmes in 1969 ("I think my salary was £15,000 a year") was critical of the BBC Trust, headed by Lord Patten.

He said the trust, which replaced the BBC's board of governors in 2007, "doesn't appear to have worked very well as far as one can see. The executive can't be allowed to go without any checks and balances, that's perfectly proper, but the check and balance we have got at the moment seems to have got out of kilter." Attenborough, who turned 87 in May, said he had no intention of retiring. "I've been more continuously busy than I have been in years," he said in an interview. "I have never said I was going to retire. I have never had any intention to retire."

He will next work on two 3D projects for Sky, one of them based in the Natural History Museum, in which the animals come to life, and another about the evolution of flight. He said he was disappointed the BBC was ditching its 3D projects after November's 50th anniversary edition of Doctor Who.

"Yes very much so … but you shouldn't be throwing your money around too much and maybe the BBC has decided it can't afford to go on experimenting in 3D. The BBC used to be at the cutting edge of technical development and I am sorry they have retreated from this one."

Attenborough, who had a pacemaker fitted in June, said he was "just fine".

"The reason you have a pacemaker is that if your heart has a funny five minutes, the pacemaker can take over," he said. "I went just recently and had a check and they said it had only been turned on 0.1% of the time, if that, because 0.1% is statistically not very significant. So you may have not had a need for it at all, which is just great. It's belt and braces."

His latest two-part series, which begins on BBC2 on 20 September, promises a "500m year journey" exploring the rise of the vertebrates. It is made by Atlantic Productions, the same team that made his 2010 series, First Life.

Along with extensive computer-generated graphics, in which fossils are brought to life as moving, walking skeletons, it also marks the first time Attenborough has been able to film in China, which has become the modern frontier of paleontological research.

"Going to China was an obvious thing to do; whether or not the Chinese would want us, we didn't know," he said. "But in fact they welcomed us with open arms. They were very kind to us and showed us all sorts of exciting things. There's not a lot of political connotations in finding feathered dinosaurs."

Attenborough, who was quoted in January as anointing the particle physicist and BBC presenter Brian Cox as his natural successor, is now less sure, saying the pair worked in "rather different fields of science". "I think he is a remarkable broadcaster [but] I think Brian would be surprised if I said he was supposed to be making programmes about dickie birds."


John Plunkett

The GuardianTramp

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