Tories would curtail BBC boss's power

Mark Thompson's powers must be reined in, says shadow Culture Secretary
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The Independent Online

An incoming Conservative government would appoint a powerful new figure as executive chairman of the BBC to challenge top level salaries and act as a restraining influence on the director general Mark Thompson, who last week announced controversial plans for the corporation's future.

In an interview with The Independent, shadow Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt said that Mr Thompson was too dominant within the corporation and suggested that the director general should face greater internal scrutiny on whether he was worth his annual remuneration package of £834,000.

As well as being director general of the 20,000-strong organisation, Mr Thompson is also chairman of the nine-member executive board which manages the BBC. "I think that the executive board that Mark Thompson chairs needs a separate chairman who has a different role to the director general, I think that would have helped Mark to avoid some of the problems that we've had over the last couple of years," said Mr Hunt. "If you look at FTSE companies they all say that the best governance structures are ones where you separate the role of chairman and chief executive."

The executive board was set up in January 2007 to work alongside the new BBC Trust in a structure that replaced the previous BBC Board of Governors. Thompson, who became director general in 2004, previously worked alongside the television industry veteran Michael Grade, who was BBC chairman until he resigned in 2006 to join ITV, shortly before changes to the governance structure were introduced.

Nobody in the BBC hierarchy is able to stand up to Mr Thompson, Mr Hunt claimed. "When it comes to an issue like Mark's own salary it's very hard for anyone on the BBC executive board to give Mark advice on how to handle that issue when he's the director general and the chairman of the executive board. If you had a chairman who was at one remove it would be possible to have a different kind of discussion than the one that's taking place now. The best leaders need to have structures where they are getting advice from people who don't necessarily owe their jobs to that person.

"The BBC has done lots of great things over the last couple of years in terms of its programming output but it's also been damaged by a series of mishaps and I think having an extra source of advice on the executive board would help to avoid those."

The new role would be separate from that of chairman of the BBC Trust, a job held by Sir Michael Lyons, a former chief executive of Birmingham City Council. The Tories have already angered Mr Lyons by indicating that they wish to scrap the trust, although it is enshrined in the BBC charter until 2016.

"I think there are things we can do before 2016 to improve governance," said Mr Hunt. "I don't want to go back to the old governors structure but the structure we moved to hasn't worked and it's very hard to find anyone outside the BBC Trust who thinks it has worked. We need to have something which gives independent representation to licence-fee payers that's independent of the people representing the BBC's institutional interests."

The current executive board includes such figures as deputy director general Mark Byford and director of vision Jana Bennett, both of whom have spent most of their careers at the corporation. It also includes individuals with considerable experience outside the BBC, such as head of radio Tim Davie, who formerly worked for PepsiCo, and Sharon Baylay, the BBC head of marketing who joined from Microsoft. Mr Hunt said: "Even the most able people – and there's no doubt that Mark is very able – would benefit from a governance structure that allowed them to draw advice from a broader range of people."

Last week Mr Thompson unveiled the findings of a Strategic Review which was ordered last year by the BBC Trust amid criticisms of BBC management, over-spending on executive and talent salaries and lapses in editorial standards. The review drew up new editorial priorities for the corporation, and recommended the closure of two digital radio stations, 6 Music and Asian Network.