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LONDON – BBC Trust chairman Lord Patten has penned a letter to the chairman of the Commons culture, media and sport select committee John Whittingdale to defend the $715,000 pay off offered to departing BBC director general George Entwistle.
Patten defended the terms of Entwistle’s resignation to Whittingdale after the committee chief and Conservative MP had earlier called for the Trust to make a case for such a large payment to be justifiable.
Patten described the settlement as both “justified and necessary” in his letter because if the Trust had been forced to fire Entwistle they would have had to pay him 12 months leave anyway.
“In the absence of George’s honorable offer to resign, I would have had to speak to the Trustees about the option of termination by us (which fortunately, was not necessary),” Patten writes. “In these circumstances, George would have been entitled to 12 months’ notice.”
Whittingdale, who chaired a grilling by his committee of Entwistle just over two weeks ago about the Jimmy Savile sex abuse scandal raging at the BBC, said a lot of people “would be very surprised that somebody who was in the job for such a short period of time and then had to leave in these circumstances should be walking away with £450,000 of license fee-payers’ money.”
Entwistle’s awkward appearance before the committee is being cited in all corners of the media, including the BBC, as being the beginning of the end for him.
After being hit by the Savile fallout, Entwistle then found himself front and center of further controversy after an edition of Newsnight aired a report wrongly accusing a British politician of child abuse before retracting its report.
Patten’s letter continues: “In circumstances where we needed to conclude matters quickly and required George’s on-going co-operation in a number of very difficult and sensitive matters, including Inquiries into issues associated with Savile, I concluded that a consensual resignation on these terms was clearly the better route.”
His letter also hints that should Entwistle have opted not to resign, the BBC Trust would have discussed firing him anyway, or “the option of termination” for the outgoing director-general anyway.
Writes Patten: “The alternative was long-drawn out discussions and continuing uncertainty at a time when the BBC needs all of its focus to be on resolving fundamental issues of trust in BBC journalism.”
The decision to pay Entwistle £450,000 – a year’s pay – has been questioned by culture secretary Maria Miller and Labour deputy leader Harriet Harman.
Miller said the “large amount of money” was difficult for the BBC to justify given the circumstances of Entwistle’s departure.
“The [BBC] Trust will need to justify this — it is accountable to licence fee payers in ensuring value for money, and we expect it to have considered that carefully,” she said.
Newsnight is scheduled to air tonight but will not contain any investigative reports as that portion of the show is currently suspended.
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