Mark Byford, who left the BBC in 2011 after 32 years of service with a payoff of £1m, has kept a very low profile. In the past few days, though, he's been defending himself to Victoria Derbyshire on Radio 5 Live as well as giving interviews to journalists. The reason? Not a belated bout of guilt, but a PR campaign promoting his new book, A Name on the Wall, about a soldier who died in Vietnam.
Byford's juicy goodbye cheque was made up of £474,500 in redundancy, the same in lieu of notice, £73,000 for accrued holidays, and an annual pension of £163,400. All of which he was contractually entitled to – and Byford clearly feels wounded by media and parliamentary criticism after the scale of his payoff emerged this summer. He says: "I've done nothing wrong… I wasn't in the meeting that decided this was the correct package."
For a man of faith, that's a pretty feeble excuse. Morally, he's on quicksand. He's "done" nothing but exhibits crass insensitivity. The BBC isn't BP or Arcadia, it's paid for by ordinary people, with no pensions or savings. Not all departing execs are the same – Roly Keating handed back the £375,000 he'd received when the National Audit Office discovered the BBC had paid out more than £1.4m in redundancy than it was contractually obliged to. We've found out that the corporation spent £25m (of our money) getting rid of 150 managers, but they refuse to tell MPs the names of more than 20. The sense of entitlement that Byford seems to feel is a repugnant virus permeating the top levels of public service in this country. Basically, executives seem to negotiate whatever they can get in salary and perks (as if they are in the private sector) and sod the workers lower down the food chain.
Tony Hall might have limited future payoffs to £150,000, but that hardly helps low-paid production staff who are still being laid off in their thousands. From the NHS to the BBC, we over-reward those at the top who have an inflated sense of their own importance, and under-reward those on the coalface. I'm not arguing for equal pay, but the NHS spends too much on pen-pushers and not enough on those who feed the elderly, the midwives who deliver the next generation, the care assistants who clean the incontinent.
At the BBC, I'm talking about the people who write and make the stuff we pay to watch and listen to. In other words, what the BBC is charged with supplying – not ventures such as buying travel book publishers Lonely Planet and losing a mere £100m in the process. Sir David Nicholson, the outgoing chief executive of the NHS (salary £211,000), told MPs he thinks his top managers "deserve" high salaries – hospital chief executives have seen their pay more than double in the past 13 years to an average of £164,000, with some earning as much as £260,000.
When someone running a hospital or human resources at the BBC earns twice the prime minister's salary, you can see how disconnected public-sector pay has become. The use of the word "deserve" means different things to different people. A new study finds that almost half of the population consider themselves to be suffering from stress, with more than a quarter saying they were "at breaking point". The prime reason is money.
I don't think you can expect staff to work hard unless managers exhibit leadership – those like Messrs Byford and Nicholson have looked after no one but themselves.
Hadid should get building
Dinner the other night with Frank Gehry; straight off the plane from Thailand and this 84-year-old is drinking tequila. What a role model! In London for an exhibition of his beautiful fish lights at the Gagosian gallery in Mayfair, Frank packs more into a day than I do. This week, he was presenting his ideas in competition for a top-secret site in central London, and I have my fingers crossed that he pulls off another project.
At the supper after his exhibition opening, Frank sat next to Zaha Hadid, just back from Baku and the official opening of her impressive Heydar Aliyev Centre, which includes a concert hall, museum and art galleries. Everyone who has seen this building says it's amazing. When is Zaha going to build a landmark building in a UK city centre? We need something a bit more inspirational than all these macho towers as they'll hardly attract tourists.
Load of wastrels
Meet the new criminals in our society: singletons. People who live alone are guilty of chucking away 40 per cent more food than families. Shame we've cancelled Asbos as they could be dished out after every wheelie-bin collection. If there's one organisation that should be disposed off, it's Wrap (Waste & Resources Action Programme) who fritter away tax-payers' money telling us to eat leftovers. Last week, it announced families throw away perfectly edible food worth about £60 a month. But why pick on the public? Recently, it emerged that major supermarkets routinely bin more than half their bagged salads, and a third of their grapes and other fruit.
Supermarkets have imposed ludicrous standards on suppliers, meaning perfectly good fresh fruit and veg is deemed unsuitable because it's lumpy or less than pristine. Confusing best-before dates on packaging have added to public panic, and "buy one, get one free" deals have encouraged us (erroneously) to think we've saving cash by buying more than we need. Instead of picking on the public, Wrap should tackle retailers far more rigorously.
The worst example of waste is hospital food, where 30 million meals are thrown away every day because they're either too disgusting or elderly patients have no one to help them eat it. Why can't Wrap sort that out? Instead, the Government has announced yet another review into hospital food. It's quite simple: insist that every hospital has to spend the same decent amount on catering. Take it off the executive pension schemes.
I always find those "rewards" from Tesco a little bit creepy: when vouchers offering discounts on bagged parsnips and crème fraiche arrive, it's as if the retailer has implanted a node in my head and I'm morphing into a Tesco android, a bit like a character from one of my favourite sci-fi movies, Michael Crichton's Westworld. Ominously, Tesco is installing TV cameras (called OptimEyes) in its shops at petrol stations, checking us out as we browse sugary energy drinks, headache pills and unappetising sarnies. They want to sort us into categories of shoppers for marketing purposes; well, that's the best argument I've heard yet for wearing a burqa. I own my ID, but not for much longer.