Mark Thompson defends BBC payoffs to managers
Former BBC chief sanctioned payments that exceeded contractual obligations
Mark Thompson, chief executive of the New York Times and former BBC director-general, leaving Portcullis House after attending a hearing at the public accounts committee in London yesterday. Photograph: Neil Hall/Reuters
Mark Thompson, chief executive of the New York Times, faced a grilling from British MPs yesterday over the high level of severance payouts made to former BBC senior managers during his reign as director-general of the UK public service broadcaster.
In at times tense exchanges before the public accounts committee, current and former BBC executives gave conflicting accounts over who knew what about £25 million (€30 million) worth of severance payouts made to 150 senior managers over three years.
Denying that the system governing severance payments was “lax” while he was director-general, Mr Thompson said he had been put under “ferocious pressure from the BBC Trust [the broadcaster’s governing body] to do something big and quick to cut senior staff to reduce costs”.
MPs focused much of their more than 150 minutes of questioning on a pay-off of £949,000 – more than his contractual entitlement – made in 2011 to Mark Byford, former deputy director-general of the BBC.
Following questioning from Margaret Hodge, chair of the committee, Mr Thompson denied his friendship with Mr Byford, which extended over three decades, had influenced the level of payout.
He reiterated the involvement of the BBC Trust in this decision-making process, saying it was “unfair and untrue” that the governing body had been kept in the dark on the payouts, which were above contractual minimums.
This accusation engendered a robust response from Lord Patten, the former Conservative MP who now chairs the trust, who told the committee: “Since the previous trust did not know why payments were made outside of contract, why should I have known?”
In what is likely to prove one of the most watched sessions by the public accounts committee, commentators said the lengthy probing by MPs had failed to uncover exactly who knew what regarding the severance payouts or pin down whether any individuals had misled parliament.
‘No smoking gun’
“There was no smoking gun,” said Tim Luckhurst, head of journalism at the University of Kent.
“I do not think anyone has come out of it smelling of roses but I expect Mark Thompson has done himself slightly less harm,” he said. “The trust’s strategy is really quite simple: all these things happened under a previous regime. They are trying to pin this on the legacy of the Mark Thompson era.”
Ms Hodge described the BBC’s management and oversight arrangements as “bewildering, complex and confusing”, in comments that are likely to further fuel debate over the governance structure of the broadcaster.
Sir Christopher Bland, a former chairman of the BBC under its previous governance structure, said that he did not expect the BBC Trust to survive beyond its current governance remit, which expires at the end of 2016.
“Parliament gave us this very difficult structure that Sir Michael Lyons [former chairman of the BBC Trust] and Lord Patten have struggled to make work,” he told the BBC. – (Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2013)