Sinking feeling over BBC ‘ship of fools’

An election night broadcast in which a Thames barge packed with celebrities held forth on results has been named as the low point in the tenure of the outgoing BBC Trust chairman.

As wine flowed, figures such as Bruce Forsyth and Sir Ben Kingsley shared their thoughts with host Andrew Neil, an incident dubbed by critics as the “ship of fools”.

Now Sir Michael Lyons, stepping down as head of the Trust, has revealed it was the moment he felt “most uncomfortable” during his four years in office.

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The broadcast edged ahead of scandals such as the “Sachsgate” affair and a number of competition irregularities which came to light under his watch. The barge broadcast took place on a vessel called the Silver Sturgeon moored near the London Eye, within view of the Palace of Westminster.

The on-board party also included figures such as Joan Collins, David Starkey and Fern Britton.

The bill is said to have exceeded £30,000 for the hire and hospitality, although the BBC has declined to reveal how much it cost.

And now Sir Michael – a guest himself – has added his criticism to that of viewers and commentators as he reviewed his time in office.

He told Radio 4’s The Media Show he thought was a misdesigned initiative if ever there was one”.

Reminded that it was called the “ship of fools”, by presenter Steve Hewlett, he acknowledged: “It was called that. I didn’t have a great evening that evening but, you know, there have been a few challenging times but you don’t take on these jobs without expecting that.”

Asked about the Sachsgate incident – in which Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross left lewd messages on actor Andrew Sachs’s answering machine – he said: “Clearly the failure there on the BBC’s part was the fact that that was broadcast, when it didn’t need to be.”

The airing of the pre-recorded show led to the departure of Radio 2 controller Lesley Douglas and Brand. It also contributed to Ross ending his lucrative contract with the BBC.