Put it this way. This time next year there’s unlikely to be a convivial reunion when the seven BBC – and ex-BBC – witnesses sitting uncomfortably side by side yesterday gather for dinner to have a laugh about the whole thing. After this display of “every man for himself”, several of them are unlikely to speak to each other ever again.
Someone had thought quite hard about the choreography of what at times looked like a joint mafia trial, in which each of the witnesses were risking a horse’s head in their beds by giving evidence on their former comrades. Lord Patten and Mark Thompson, the principal pre-hearing pugilists, sat four seats apart, allowing them to enter without so much as a nod.
We got to the heart of the matter quickly in this three-hour marathon, with Mr Thompson insisting that the BBC had not “lost the plot” by doling out £1m to his departing deputy Mark Byford. This had all been part of an accelerated cut in the top management “population”.
An on-form PAC chair Margaret Hodge (at one point she crisply said, “I’m not having any more lies,” and at another described meeting a receptionist who had got the statutory minimum after 20 years’ service) was having none of it. His £1m was double the minimum Byford might have got under contract. “Why was £500,000, which is for most people megabucks, not enough?”
Ah well, it turned out, he was paid severance, notice money as if he was leaving, and then was paid while he worked his notice instead. And “I wanted Mark Byford to be fully focussed, 100 per cent” Mr Thompson explained. He hadn’t wanted him to be “worrying about calls from headhunters”. Which is a bit odd since even headhunters can usually be asked to call back.
What took up the time was a mutually acrimonious blame game made all the more disconcerting by Mr Thompson producing as he spoke fresh emails from “whistleblowers” inside the Corporation. And all designed to prove his point that that the Trust had been kept informed. Not unreasonably the Tory Chris Heaton-Harris suggested the session had turned into “the most bizarre game of Whac-A-Mole I’ve ever seen in my life, where you hit one fact down and it throws up other questions”.
Lord Patten made a fairly convincing fist of arguing against Thompson’s claims – saying he hadn’t been fully and retrospectively briefed that Byford could have been paid much less. Undaunted, Thompson interrupted previous chairman Sir Michael Lyons, who was arguing he too hadn’t really known what was happening. “How do you think it got to £950,000 then?” said Thompson, ignoring the convention that MPs ask questions.
Yet for all of this the salient fact was fairly clear, whether you agreed with Ms Hodge that BBC governance was “broke”. One very highly paid BBC executive got a whacking redundancy payment for a close colleague with whom he “sometimes” socialised. And the system let him get away with it.