The BBC has a strong reputation for exposing wrongdoing and uncovering scandals. But for months the broadcaster has been embroiled in a growing controversy over executive severance payments that could lead to high-level resignations and sweeping changes in the way it is managed.
On Monday, the latest and most dramatic chapter in the saga plays out before a parliamentary committee that has been investigating the payments, which totalled nearly $100-million from 2005 to 2013. The government’s National Audit Office, similar to the Auditor-General, has concluded that some of the payments were more than necessary under employment contracts and many others breached BBC policies.
During Monday’s meeting before the Public Accounts Committee, two key players in the scandal face off against each other. On one side will be Lord Chris Patten, a former cabinet minister and governor of Hong Kong who chairs the BBC Trust, a government-appointed board that oversees the corporation. On the other side will be Mark Thompson, the BBC’s director general from 2004 to 2012 who is now chief executive of the New York Times Company.
For weeks, both men have been throwing insults at each other about who knew what, and when, about the severance packages. In July, Lord Patten told the committee that Mr. Thompson did not provide details about the payments to the 12-member Trust. He told committee members about his “shock and dismay” at the severance and added that the Trust should have been told. “If you call a previous director general of the BBC in due course, I will be as interested as you in why we didn’t know,” he said.
Last week, Mr. Thompson replied, filing a 73-page brief to the committee outlining what he said were extensive conversations, e-mails and meetings with the Trust to inform them about the severance. “The picture painted for the [committee by Lord Patten and other trust members] on 10 July, 2013, was – in addition to specific untruths and inaccuracies – fundamentally misleading,” Mr. Thompson said. “The insinuation that they were kept in the dark by me or anyone else is false and is not supported by the evidence.”
In a statement, Lord Patten and the Trust called Mr. Thompson’s report “bizarre.”
“We completely disagree with Mark Thompson’s analysis,” the Trust said in a press release last week. Lord Patten added that he was looking forward to Monday’s hearing, telling reporters: “I have no concerns at all about the remarks Mr. Thompson has made.”
The spat has led some committee members to call for Lord Patten’s dismissal if he did mislead parliament. Others have said the Trust itself should be scrapped.
The scandal over the payments comes at a difficult time for the BBC, which has 19,000 employees and is funded by a licence fee, about $236, charged to each household. The corporation is already under fire because of allegations of sexual assault by BBC broadcaster Jimmy Savile who died in 2011. The allegations stretch more than 50 years and involve hundreds of alleged victims, according to a police report, raising questions about why his behaviour went unnoticed by BBC officials.
Another blow came last year when Mr. Thompson’s replacement as director general, George Entwistle, resigned after just 54 days on the job. He left after the BBC’s flagship news program, Newsnight, falsely implied that a member of the House of Lords was involved in another child abuse case. Mr. Entwistle received a year’s salary as severance, totalling more than $730,00, which was double what his contract stipulated. Lord Patten defended the payment, saying it ensured a “consensual resignation.”