“I know today is going to be a tough one for the BBC,” said Director General Tony Hall this morning in an email to staff, in one of the only comments of clarity and insight that the organisation managed on what was indeed an unseemly display.
“I feel sorry for some of the staff at the BBC who are watching this,” said one MP on the Public Accounts Committee, as some of the broadcaster’s current and recent leaders floundered in explaining huge severance packages given to senior colleagues. The “unedifying spectacle”, as the committee chair Margaret Hodge described it, called into question the future of the BBC Trust, the organisation’s governing body.
“We all round the table feel it’s broke,” Hodge told a panel of seven senior BBC figures. Neither Lord Patten, the Trust chairman, or his predecessor Sir Michael Lyons was able to take much issue. Sir Michael said: “Clearly the Trust is damaged by these sets of discussions - I have no doubt about that.”
Lord Patten said there was a need to “put on a hair shirt” and acknowledged that several other executive payments were “a problem”, in addition to the £1m-plus settlement to former Deputy Director General Mark Byford, which the committee focused on.
At the start of the session Hodge told the witnesses: “I’m not having any more lies this afternoon.” She had called former Director General Mark Thompson back from his job running the New York Times Company to shed light on a subject which the committee failed to get to the bottom of in July.
Thompson and the Trust engaged in a public battle last week in which both appeared to accuse the other of providing misleading evidence to the committee.
Today the BBC, at both Trust and Executive level, was exposed for embarrassing levels of incompetence over its handling of the pay offs. One letter, which was said to show that Thompson had reached a decision on Byford’s payment before it had gone before a BBC committee, was in fact wrongly dated, the former Director General argued. Another key document went unnoticed by the Trust because of the “codeword” used in searches.
Nicholas Kroll, a director of the BBC Trust, struggled to explain the inefficiency. Hodge asked how much he was paid because “you seem to have a very short memory”. Lucy Adams, the BBC head of Human Resources, was accused by one MP of using the word “sweeteners” in correspondence on the pay offs. Hodge said she was “developing a habit of changing your evidence”.
Thompson complained he had been under “ferocious pressure” to reduce managerial numbers.
Lord Patten said the generous payoffs were a “cultural issue” that had long existed at the BBC. He said the Trust had only a few years to sort its act out. After an afternoon in which BBC bosses succeeded only in raising questions about whether they were worth their salaries – let alone big pay-offs – the governing body may not have that long.