A band of desperate men were fighting like ferrets to save their own skins at the public accounts committee
Source: The Guardian
It was like a show trial, a band of desperate men fighting like ferrets to save their own skins. The point at issue at the public accounts committee hearing was who to blame for the huge payments made to senior figures as a quarter of the top staff were made redundant after 2010. What was at stake was much more: first, Mark Thompson, who after eight years as director general is now chief executive of the New York Times, could be gravely damaged by any evidence of improper conduct in his old job. Second, and more important, is the much wider issue of the best way of ensuring transparency and accountability in the BBC.
Mr Thompson justified the fat payouts, often in excess of contractual obligations, as a necessary evil, a way of getting very senior executives to go quietly – including, notoriously, the deputy DG Mark Byford – in order to make big savings. And however jaw-dropping the individual payments seem, the payroll is now £19m a year smaller. The question of quite what the BBC Trust knew, and what its duty was in relation to the payoffs, is much more slippery. The trust is there to ensure licence-fee payers get value for money, and adopting a deliberate strategy of high payoffs to achieve quick savings was part of that. But under the governance arrangements set up after the Hutton inquiry, details of remuneration belong to a separate committee of non-executive directors then chaired by the former Barclays chairman Marcus Agius. The trust's case is that its only formal responsibility in the matter was to consider the structural change of abolishing the post of deputy DG.
Watching a group of seven highly paid BBC figures indulge in a public spat that plainly reflected a deep underlying hostility was, as the PAC chair Margaret Hodge concluded at the end, a grossly unedifying experience. Beneath the surface, a bitter territorial row between trust and executives could be discerned, which seems to have contributed at the least to a lack of openness. Yet the trust seems to have lacked curiosity, satisfied – apparently – merely to have been offered sight of the Project Silver paper setting out options for the Byford payoff. Its defence, that it was never given the whole picture, was undermined when Mr Thompson pointed out that within days every detail was being reported.
The way the BBC is regulated will inevitably be up for grabs as charter renewal approaches. But the lesson here is that governance is about more than structures. Personalities count, too. The trust will be stronger for its mauling by MPs. Yet the MPs shouldn't sneer too much. The BBC remains a fine institution, making great programmes. The overwhelming majority of its staff operate to high ethical standards. The worst outcome would be if this episode gave succour to its detractors.
© The Guardian