Christa Ackroyd exclusive: Yes, I cried over it... but why DID BBC take me off air over a contract dispute?

Grey hair is on trend at the moment, isn't it? asks Christa Ackroyd as she strikes a familiar pose on the sofa: stable, solemn even, when she needs to be, yet also coquettish.

Christa Ackroyd speaking exclusively to the Yorkshire Post at her home.  Picture by Bruce Rollinson
Christa Ackroyd speaking exclusively to the Yorkshire Post at her home. Picture by Bruce Rollinson

The sofa is her own: a leather Chesterfield, and there’s a throw draped casually over the back. It has been five years since she perched on the more familiar BBC one, with Harry Gration at her side.

The hair is indeed lighter now. But she shows few other outward signs of the ordeal that has stalked her since she was abruptly, and without explanation, taken off the screen.

The air was thick with innuendo at the time. She was called a tax cheat; her integrity questioned.

“I remember Googling myself, and that’s one of the times I cried,” she says.

“I could still cry now,” and for a moment it looks as if she is going to.

Last week, she had emerged from the tax tribunal at which she had insisted she would be heard, with her reputation restored.

Its ruling was in favour of HM Revenue and Customs, but the judge said she could not be criticised because she had been encouraged by the BBC to sign a freelance contract through a “personal service company”, a practice common in the industry at the time.

Nevertheless, it has left her with the prospect of a large bill. £419,000 was HMRC’s figure, but accounting for money she has already paid, £200,000 might be more realistic.

“I’m not going to go bankrupt or go running for the hills,” she says. “If there is money to be paid, it can be and will be. This has never been about money. It’s been about restoring my reputation, and that I feel has been achieved.

“An independent judge found that I had never been dishonest. That’s all I wanted to hear.”

But the tribunal raised questions about the BBC’s role in the affair, the most significant of which, to Ms Ackroyd, is why it terminated her contract when the tax people began conducting what she understood to be a routine enquiry – especially given that around 100 other presenters awaiting judgements in similar cases are understood to be still on air.

HMRC now considers personal service companies to be tax loopholes, though it apparently did not at the time Ms Ackroyd signed hers. That was when the BBC poached her, at the second attempt, from ITV’s rival Calendar, because her name had appeared at the top of a survey in which viewers were asked what was most likely to make them watch.

“I was never offered a staff contract. It was never discussed,” says Ms Ackroyd, in the immaculate, sprawling cottage on the moors above Huddersfield to which she moved a year ago.

“I signed the only contract I was offered, in good faith and I had no reason to think that it was anything other than a true freelance contract drawn up by the BBC’s legal department.

“Look, I don’t have an offshore company, I never invested in films – the case is as straightforward as it seems.”

The contract still had six months to run when she was taken off screen.

“It didn’t need to end like that,” she says. “In the circumstances, the least they can do is to honour the last six months.”

But she adds: “I don’t believe in getting anything for nothing. So if it’s deemed that for those six months they’d like me to sit on the Look North sofa next to Harry, I’d be delighted to accept.”

It niggled that the BBC seemed happier to discuss the situation with the public than with her. A local radio station broadcast a phone-in on the subject, but did not invite her to take part.

“That’s when the speculation and gossip and innuendo started,” she says.

Did it hurt?

“I’m not going to sit here and say tritely that it was fine. Did I cry? Yes, I shed tears. I’m not that tough. Did it make me ill? Yes.

“But, no, it didn’t hurt. There are real reasons to get hurt in life and hurt feelings don’t come into it.

“But yes, I was upset.”

She is keen to put her troubles into context. “In 42 years as a journalist in Yorkshire, I’ve interviewed too many people who have lost everything, lost loved ones, and that’s tragedy.”

“Would anybody be asking questions about how much a highly trained man in their fifties was being paid? I don’t think so.”

A message from Lord Tony Hall arrived in Christa Ackroyd’s inbox as she pondered the reasons for the BBC having abandoned its highest-paid regional presenter.

The director-general, she learned via a friend, was recruiting for someone to lead a project on “progression and culture, with a particular focus on women”.

Written in human resource department jargon, it sought “to create fully inclusive cultures which value women’s contributions and support women to succeed”.

“Perhaps I should apply,” Ms Ackroyd muses. She wasn’t serious but she finds it hard to believe the advert was, either.

She had been an exception to the BBC’s roundly-criticised gender bias on presenter salary.

“I make no apologies for being a well-paid professional and an older woman,” she says. “I always demanded and got equality.

“Would anybody be asking questions about how much a highly trained man in their fifties was being paid? I don’t think so.”

Ms Ackroyd’s ascent through Yorkshire’s media landscape had begin in the late 1980s, when, as a radio news editor, she was invited to join Calendar.

“I wasn’t a television journalist – I was a journalist who ended up on television,” she says.

“I was in my thirties, I was a size 14-16, I didn’t look the norm. I still don’t.”

She recognises that she has always been, as she puts it, a “Marmite” presenter – loved by some, not by others.

“But I could always be relied upon to ask the tough questions when they need asking, and to be sensitive to people in difficult circumstances,” she says.

“Beyond that, I’m not really bothered whether people like me or not, I really am not.”

Her inspiration throughout her tax ordeal, she says, has been her late father, Maurice, an inspector with the Bradford police.

“He’d have said to me, ‘Just stand up and tell the truth’. And that’s what I did.”

What BBC says about Christa

• Ms Ackroyd disputed a BBC version of events, released in a statement last night.

The corporation said it had given “several reasons” for ending her contract, in a letter of 2013. The letter, seen by The Yorkshire Post, refers to an “unauthorised personal appearance”. But Ms Ackroyd said the event involved only cutting a string of sausages at a college in Bradford, where she was a Fellow.

The BBC also said she had declined a staff contract “on a number of occasions”. Ms Ackroyd said: I was never once offered a staff contract. An independent judge found me to be an entirely honest witness.”