Lord Patten to face public accounts committee over BBC Trust

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By Lynda Williamson

Senior members of the BBC Trust will face questions from the public accounts committee, chaired by Margaret Hodge, on Monday as the row over who knew what about controversial pay-offs deepens.

The quarrel centres on a recent report by the National Audit Office which found that the BBC authorised pay-offs to departing executives of £25 million over the last three years. Just how much the BBC Trust, chaired since May 2011 by Lord Patten, knew about these lavish severance packages is hotly disputed.

Lord Patten appeared before the public accounts committee in July where he expressed “shock and dismay” over the size of exit packages nearly a quarter of which exceeded contractual obligations. He claimed however that the Trust had been unaware of key aspects of the most controversial payout, one made to Mark Byford former deputy director general. Mr Byford received £940,000 when he left the BBC in 2011 as part of a management streamlining exercise. Lord Patten also explained that executive pay was not within the remit of the Trust.

This version of events is contradicted by former director general of the BBC, Mark Thompson. Mr Thompson who is currently chief executive of the New York Times alleges that Lord Patten and his predecessor Sir Michael Lyons were fully aware of the details of payouts and that Lord Patten’s earlier submission to the committee was misleading and inaccurate.

Mr Thompson has submitted a 13,000 word statement to the committee in advance of his appearance before it on Monday in which he says:

“The picture painted for PAC by BBC trust witnesses on the 10th of July 2013 was – in addition to specific untruths and inaccuracies – fundamentally misleading about the extent of Trust knowledge and involvement.

“The insinuation that they were kept in the dark by me or anyone else is false and is not supported by the evidence.”

Lord Patten points out that Mark Byford departed the BBC several months before he was appointed to chair the trust and says that he has “no concerns at all about the remarks which Mr Thompson has made.”

The trust added:

“it remains the case, as noted by the NAO in its original report, both that the trust under the chairmanship of Sir Michael Lyons was told that these payments were within contractual terms and that the trust did not have a role in the approval process.”

Questions are emerging over how effective the Trust is in regulating the public service broadcaster with Tory MP Stephen Barclay stating:

“The BBC Trust’s position appears to be that they were not aware of material information relating to Mark Byford’s pay-off. That itself raises questions as to how effective governance of the BBC is.”

Indeed the entire débâcle may put the Trusts future in doubt with former BBC chairman, Sir Christopher Bland concluding that the system of regulation is flawed and that only two options exist for reform. These are either to go back to the old system which he believes is unlikely or to give Ofcom, the media regulator, the job of policing the corporation.

The very public feud is deeply damaging to the beleaguered BBC and Monday’s meeting is predicted to be one of the most dramatic. When asked about allegations that the PAC had been mislead Margaret Hodge said:

“We will have to discover that next Monday. Certainly these individuals we are having in front of us don’t agree with each other on what happened or who knew what, and until we unravel that we won’t know whether or not we were misled.”

The BBC’s royal charter expires in 2016.