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LONDON – BBC Trust chairman Chris Patten and Tony Hall, the director general of the U.K. public broadcaster, on Tuesday faced the latest grilling of BBC top executives by the British Parliament.
After a year of scandals, the new BBC boss and the head of its governing body answered questions about executive salaries, severance payments and bullying. And they denied plans to sell off BBC Worldwide, the broadcaster’s commercial arm.
STORY: BBC Director General Tony Hall Aims to Create a More ‘Bespoke’ Broadcaster
Patten also said he hopes to publish a report “before Christmas” on the work he and Hall are carrying out to clarify the respective roles of the BBC Trust and the BBC executive team and how they interact.
Patten acknowledged to the committee of the U.K. parliament’s House of Commons that it “has been a bad year” for the BBC, but said that the broadcaster could recover.
Patten was also questioned about the BBC Trust’s supervision over the past year, during which he appointed Hall after former director general George Entwistle was forced to resign as the BBC’s director general after only 54 days, thanks largely to the escalating Jimmy Savile sexual abuse scandal.
Patten described Entwistle as a “decent broadcaster” who was “overwhelmed by events” as the fallout from the scandal engulfed the BBC.
Meanwhile, Hall addressed questions about the ongoing overhaul of the BBC’s bullying and harassment policy, noting the team he has been assembling to reform the broadcaster since he took his position in April.
Hall said the BBC is opening its first bullying and harassment support line and is implementing recommendations made by human rights lawyer Dinah Rose and the BBC’s human resources department. Complaints will be investigated by people from different departments, Hall said, while exit interviews are being conducted to see what departing staff has to say about bullying.
STORY: 5 Things to Know About the Jimmy Savile Abuse Scandal and the BBC
Hall described the BBC as having been through a “really grueling year,” but kept returning to his mantra of “moving forward” and making sure that there was a “proper culture” to improve things going forward.
“I want us to learn, I want us to change and I want us to move on,” Hall said, reflecting that some of the British parliamentarians had “differences of opinion” on recent executive appointments. Patten noted that Hall has been “appointing a very good team.”
There were also questions about the differences in accounts from top executives concerning what went down at Newsnight, the BBC flagship news program that had left the allegations of sexual abuse unaired.
Then-BBC News director Helen Boaden, now director of BBC Radio, and former director general Mark Thompson, who left the public broadcaster to become CEO of the New York Times Co., have offered different accounts of the timing and decision-making process that led to the news story about Savile’s abuse being dropped.
Hall told parliament on Tuesday that he genuinely believed it was possible to have two different recollections of the events from two different executives, and he was OK with that.
When pressed about the fact that Nick Pollard, the Sky News executive who wrote a report on Newsnight‘s decision to drop the Savile investigation, he said it was a “mistake” that evidence from Boaden was excluded, and said Pollard had also made it clear that Boaden’s evidence would not have affected his findings.
Meanwhile, Patten said the BBC’s executive team was responsible for what one member of Parliament described as the public broadcaster’s “culture of excessive severance payments,” referencing the public outcry over some of the broadcaster’s payoffs. Patten did note that sometimes it was justified paying someone “over contract” to get rid of them quickly, though.
Patten also said that in recent years the BBC found itself “competing for talent not just with ITV and other big broadcasters, but with independent production companies.” He said: “People got ‘stars in their eyes’ in relation to pay.”
The pay of senior management has gone down ,and Hall reiterated that he aims to cut salaries among senior managers by 2015 to bring the BBC in line with ambitions to reduce overheads and management costs at the organization.
“I do want a simpler, slimmer BBC,” Hall said, with a reduction in managers who are not “enablers” within the organization.
On the failure of an expensive digital media initiative, a plan to digitize the entire organization’s archive, which was shelved after costs hit $160 million, Patten said “it should not have happened at the BBC” and declared it a “pretty lamentable” situation. The BBC Trust chairman said the full story of the costly failure would be published in a report later this year. Hall said he was looking forward to reading the report, but that he had felt it was right “to completely write it down” as a failed venture.
Patten also said that as of Tuesday, there were no plans to “fatten up” BBC Worldwide, the broadcaster’s commercial arm, for a sale.
Patten noted that if BBC Worldwide was sold off, it would remove one of its main reasons for being a commercial success, as it would lose the wealth of BBC programming it gets to distribute around the world.
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