For the MPs, it was sweet revenge. After all those months in which they endured accusations of having their collective noses in the trough, at last they could make someone else suffer, as representatives from the BBC yesterday described to the Public Accounts Committee the benefits enjoyed by their upper management.
It was reminiscent of that seminal 1970s comedy sketch about social class featuring John Cleese and the two Ronnies. Someone on an average salary might look up in envy at an MP, on £65,738 a year plus expenses, but imagine the green eyed jealousy of an MP hearing about the mountain of loot that a BBC high honcho takes home.
Anthony Fry, from the BBC Trust did a reasonable job of defusing their envy by stressing how much it had pained him personally to see the former Director General, George Entwistle, depart with a £450,000 pay off, plus extras, after 54 days in the job. That pay off was already public knowledge. What excited the committee was the previously unrevealed details of the rest of the package - a pension pot that will give Mr Entwistle an income of around £48,000 a year, for life, plus up to £10,000 towards any legal fees he incurred negotiating his golden goodbye, and up to another £10,000 to be spent on advice on how to deal with the resulting publicity, and a year’s subscription to Bupa.
The gasps were audible. How many other BBC bigwigs were having their Bupa membership paid for by the licence payer, the committee’s chairwoman, Margaret Hodge wanted to know. Sensing that the answer was not going to do much for the popularity of the corporation’s upper management, the chief financial officer, Zarin Patel, decided to talk about something else. She was cut short by the Tory MP, who crossly insisted that she answer the question. Ms Patel looked furious, but reluctantly let on that the perk is enjoyed by hundreds of “senior” managers. The precise number came out later – 574 of them, at an annual cost of £2m, though the scheme is closed to new entrants.
After the MPs had absorbed that surprise, which Ms Hodge described as a “real shocker”, they returned to Mr Fry and his explanation of why it might have cost the BBC as much in cash and possibly more in damaged morale to have sacked their former Director General instead of letting him walk out on such generous terms. “Please don’t get the impression that I feel good about this,” he pleaded. “I feel very, very bad.”
“The licence fee payers are I am sure very interested in your feelings,” Mr Bacon replied. “I am touched. I feel your pain.