Culture secretary says action is needed after string of controversies including £60m payoffs and Jimmy Savile scandal
Source: The Guadian
An exasperated culture secretary has issued a final warning to the BBC Trust in the aftermath of the multimillion-pound payoff row and what she described as an "annus horribilis" for the national broadcaster.
In a clear criticism of the former Tory party chairman Lord Patten's stewardship of the trust, Maria Miller said the BBC had to act immediately to show it had learned from controversies which began with the Jimmy Savile scandal and culminated on Monday with a humiliating grilling of BBC bosses by MPs.
The culture secretary described the Commons public accounts committee hearing as a "grim day" for the BBC's senior management and said "serious questions" had been raised about the broadcaster's judgment having handed out severance payments totalling £60m in the last eight years.
Miller said she believed part of the BBC's problems stemmed from "ongoing confusion" between the roles and responsibilities of the BBC Trust and the BBC management. "This must be addressed," she told the Royal Television Society convention in Cambridge on Wednesday.
Her intervention immediately prompted the BBC to announce a review of the relationship between the trust and BBC management. In a joint letter to Miller by Patten and the BBC director general, Tony Hall, they admitted the "last few days have not seen the BBC at its best".
The culture secretary indicated that the BBC's future governance and the future of the trust – chaired by Patten – was itself under review. Echoing MPs' verdict earlier this week that the trust was "broken", Miller said it was "no good waiting until a new [BBC] charter in 2017 to act" on the way the BBC was governed.
Miller said the BBC was a "phenomenal worldwide brand" but warned there was a "risk of events like this overshadowing the unstinting work of its staff. This must not be allowed to happen. The corporate dramas of the BBC should never eclipse its actual dramas."
Industry insiders listening to the speech in Cambridge warned that Miller's criticism would only intensify the pressure on Patten, whose term of office is not due to expire until 2015. But one said his departure may only expose others: "The problem is if they get rid of Patten then it opens up the whole thing. If he goes then a whole lot of BBC executives would have to go as a result as well."
The culture secretary added that the public spending watchdog, the National Audit Office, would be given unprecedented access to the BBC's finances in the wake of its dual report into BBC payoffs. "The NAO's work has been pivotal in bringing issues to light so I want us to strengthen its role further," she added. "I want a system where the NAO can look at any area of concern without hindrance or delay."
Labour said that involving the NAO at this stage would be a "kneejerk" reaction to a much more fundamental problem with the BBC. The party's deputy leader, Harriet Harman, said: "We have concerns about the NAO because it is an administrative part of the government and the reason people trust the BBC is because it is politically independent. It's quite a big line to cross and we have to look at this with a cool head. We've got to review the trust in a calm and systematic way."
Harman, did however, echo Miller's concerns about the way the BBC was run, saying "nobody should underestimate the seriousness about how wrong things have gone", and said the BBC needed to conduct a full audit of salaries, reflecting the fact that the broadcaster could reward people not just financially but through "the amazing advantages it offers" including its global reputation.
The Labour frontbencher also warned against running down the broadcaster. "We are not unaware of the powerful political and commercial opponents of the BBC who will use the pay levels to undermine the BBC and us it to weaken it for their own purposes," she added.
Miller's speech to television executives stopped short of announcing the abolition of the trust but it was the culmination of a bruising 12 months for its chairman, Patten, the former Tory MP and last governor of Hong Kong, who succeeded Sir Michael Lyons in the £110,000-a-year role in 2011.
Patten was savaged by MPs over his handling of the Savile affair, the £100m Digital Media Initiative fiasco and the controversial severance payments to senior staff. He also faced criticism his choice of George Entwistle as director general and the circumstances of his subsequent exit, complete with £475,000 payoff, after just 54 days in charge.
Patten was accused by former director general Mark Thompson of misleading parliament over what he knew about the former deputy director general Mark Byford's £1.02m payoff in 2011, a charge he denied.
The trust chairman told MPs on Monday that the current governance system could be made to work but admitted "it sure as hell hasn't worked very well in relation to this".
The public accounts committee's chairman, the Labour MP Margaret Hodge, said: "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 BBC Trust, in a statement, said it had "done a great deal to strengthen our relationship with the NAO in the last two years and to make the current arrangements work to the benefit of licence fee payers".
It said Patten had made clear that the trust "valued the work done by the NAO and have had an increasingly good working relationship with them. We look forward to talking about this further."
© The Guardian