BBC Top Executives Grilled, Criticized About Severance Payments

BBC Trust chairman Chris Patten

Former BBC director general Mark Thompson, now CEO of the New York Times Co., was also criticized from afar in a hearing in the U.K. parliament.

LONDON -- Top executives of the BBC and its governing body, the BBC Trust, on Wednesday were grilled and criticized by British parliamentarians about their role in severance payments to former managers that were found to have exceeded contractual promises.

BBC Trust chairman Chris Patten told a committee of the U.K. parliament's House of Commons that the much-criticized payments, which were the topic of a recent report by the country's financial watchdog, the National Audit Office, had been a matter "of shock and dismay."

Emphasizing that he was not told that payoffs went beyond contractual terms, Patten said he would "be as interested as you are why we didn't know," though he highlighted that the BBC Trust does not have power over severance payments. "This is a problem of the overall structure of governance at the BBC," he said. "The charter doesn't make the BBC Trust responsible for value for money. The charter is absolutely explicit."

Patten also emphasized that "since 2007 and especially since 2009, the Trust has been pressing for a reduction in [executive] pay" and staffing.

Committee members later chided him for the high severance that was awarded to George Entwistle, who was forced to resign as the BBC's director general after only 54 days amid the Jimmy Savile abuse scandal last fall. Patten shot back that the deal was "a compromise agreement" that he knew would be unpopular.

"I'm not that naive," he said, but "the alternative would have been more expensive and would have left a gap at the top of the BBC."

Asked what Entwistle did in the three weeks following his resignation, over the course of which he was paid $37,300 (£25,000), Patten admitted it was "very little." But he said that was partly due to interim boss Tim Davie coping "brilliantly on his own" and the quick appointment of Tony Hall as the new BBC head. Patten said that appointment was "extremely well received."

One committee member then wanted to know if Patten was hoping for a second term as BBC Trust chair. "I haven't even considered going beyond the next two years," he replied.

New BBC director general Tony Hall late on Wednesday said the broadcaster's executive team was taking the blame. "We got this wrong -- we were overpaying," he said in a statement. "The fault lies with us, the executives of the BBC."

BBC Trust member Anthony Fry also was attacked by a parliamentarian who told him, "You have failed. You have failed."

He was then asked if former BBC director general Mark Thompson, now CEO of the New York Times Co., had lied about a severance deal in a letter to the Trust that said the payoff for one departing top manager was within contractual promises, even though it later was found that it was not. Fry declined to respond. However, there was "some disconnect" between the letter and what the National Audit Office found, he acknowledged.

"Mark continues to have the full support of The New York Times Company board and of his colleagues in management," the New York Times Co. said in a statement.

The committee also told BBC human resources head Lucy Adams Wednesday that she should consider leaving her position. She was also accused of presiding over cronyism and decisions that wasted taxpayers' money.

Twitter: @georgszalai