Former BBC director-general, and current CEO of The New York Times Company, Mark Thompson, was grilled by British MPs today over severance packages paid out to senior execs towards the end of his time at the public broadcaster. The BBC is being scrutinized for making £25M in exit payments, some said to be in excess of contractual obligations. Public accounts committee chairwoman Margaret Hodge contended that today’s hearing was not to “bash the BBC,” rather it was designed to “get to the truth.” By the end, she had called the session “a grossly unedifying occasion.”
Thompson was among seven witnesses providing testimony to the committee today, along with BBC Trust chairman Chris Patten. Patten had earlier said he was unaware of some of the payments and that he was “shocked and dismayed” that a £1M payment to Thompson’s former deputy director general Mark Byford in 2010/2011 exceeded his contractual entitlement. Thompson has maintained that the Trust had been kept well-informed. He said his mandate at the time of the Byford payment was to reduce the corporation’s payroll from the top. He characterized it as “value for money” and said he had been under “ferocious pressure” to cut costs. “I do not think we lost the plot, I do think we had done several important things to begin to control payments,” he said, noting that steps taken during his tenure led to a cost-savings at the BBC of £35M. The matter is of some concern to the British public given that it funds the broadcaster via a license fee of £145.50 per year.
Hodge and others on the panel at times seemed exasperated. She concluded, “At best what we have seen is incompetence… At worst, what we may have seen is people covering their backs by being less than open.” The PAC is not a court of law but its findings can influence other UK bodies. Quizzed over any potential fallout for Thompson, Benchmark analyst Ed Atorino told Reuters, “The only reason it would impact the New York Times is if he gets in trouble.”
The BBC has come under intense scrutiny in the past year given the Jimmy Savile sex scandal and the editorial snafus under former director-general George Entwistle, who stepped down last November after 54 days on the job.