Performance by seven senior staff in front of MPs 'can only damage reputation of the BBC', says Margaret Hodge
Source: The Guardian
Former BBC director general Mark Thompson contradicted Lord Patten during his evidence to the Commons public accounts committee. Photograph: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images
BBC governance is not fit for purpose and its senior managers are not up to the job or more interested in "covering their backs", the chair of the Commons public accounts committee said on Monday.
The remarks came at the end of a "grossly unedifying" hearing that saw seven past and present BBC bosses struggling to defend £3m in excess payouts to former executives.
With BBC Trust Lord Patten and former director general Mark Thompson among those appearing before her, Margaret Hodge complained that BBC bosses were guilty of "squabbling on the head of a pin" about who was responsible for signing off the controversial severance payments — including a £1.02m deal for outgoing deputy director general Mark Byford in 2011.
At the end of a three hour session of the powerful public accounts committee, which saw Thompson – CEO of the New York Times Company – and Patten disagree over who knew what about executive payoffs, it fell to a clearly exasperated Hodge to conclude it was "a grossly unedifying occasion which can only damage in my view the standing and reputation of the BBC".
The influential Labour chair, well known for taking companies such as Google and Starbucks to task over corporate tax, took aim at the BBC Trust, which governs the corporation. Referring to the Trust, she said: "We all around the table feel it is broke. What are you going to change?"
Monday's meeting was the culmination of weeks of claim and counterclaim over who was responsible for paying dozens of former BBC executives £2.9m more than it was contracted to in payoffs agreed between 2006 and 2012. It had been billed as a showdown between Patten and Thompson, but as the two men disagreed over complex contractual detail, it fell to Hodge to criticise the way the BBC was run: "At best what we have seen is incompetence, a lack of central control and a failure to communicate at an organisation whose business is to communicate … At worst we might have seen people covering their backs by being less than open and that is not good for the thousands of people who work for the BBC who produce content that enriches all our lives."
The embattled chairman of the BBC Trust, former Conservative party chairman Patten, told MPs that, given the chance, the body that he oversees could yet be an effective regulator of the corporation.
But the Tory MP Richard Bacon, another member of the PAC, said there was no way back for the trust, which has also been criticised over its response to the Jimmy Savile scandal and the BBC's £100m Digital Media Initiative fiasco. "I came into this meeting agnostic whether the structure needed to be tinkered with," said Bacon. "Surely the case has been overwhelmingly proven … it's broken, it is not working properly, it needs fixing now."
Thompson, who was director general of the BBC between 2004 and 2012, defended the big money payments to executives such as Byford, whom he told the committee he had known for 30 years.
He rejected the current BBC director general, Tony Hall's assertion that the corporation had "lost the plot" by handing out more than £60m to departing senior executives over an eight year period. Thompson said it was a price worth paying for cutting the number of senior executives and the overall bill for senior management.
But Hodge described it as a "colossal waste" and said she "completely failed to understand" why Byford could not have been paid half his eventual payoff. "He walked away with give or take a million pounds, which for most people is megabucks," she said.
Thompson said: "It was not because I thought it was in the interests of Mark Byford. I believe it was in the BBC's interests because of the immense operational challenges we were facing." He added: "One month's delay could potentially cost more than £1m," he added. Hodge replied: "We will have to agree to differ."Patten, who made only a handful of interventions, said he "took very strongly" a suggestion made by Thompson that he had "misled" MPs on a previous appearance before the committee on the subject in July this year.
Patten rejected Thompson's claim that he had been briefed that Byford's and another payoff went beyond what they were contractually entitled to after he took over as BBC Trust chairman in May 2011. "Since the previous trust chairman didn't know that payments had been made outside contract, why should I have known as a new trust chairman?" he said.
"I'm in a position of having been accused of misleading the committee on something I didn't know about."
Thompson added that management had been put under "ferocious pressure" from the BBC Trust to do something "big and quick" on the level of senior pay. He said it was "untrue and unfair" to suggest that he or his colleagues had withheld information from the BBC Trust about the scale of the payments to Byford and another controversial payout, the £390,000 that was given to the BBC's former marketing director Sharon Baylay.
Patten and Thompson were among seven prominent BBC figures, past and present, to appear before MPs, including former BBC Trust chairman Sir Michael Lyons and the BBC's director of human resources, Lucy Adams. Another committee member, Tory MP Chris Heaton-Harris, described it as "the most bizarre game of whack-a-mole I've ever seen in my life, where you hit something down and it throws up another load of questions".
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