Lord Patten defends BBC pay-off to George Entwistle

Lord Patten: "The options we had were absolutely clear."

The chairman of the BBC Trust, Lord Patten, has told MPs he had no choice but to agree to a £450,000 pay-off to director general George Entwistle.

Mr Entwistle, who had been in the job for just 54 days, resigned on 10 November after a row over Newsnight.

A Newsnight report had led to Thatcher-era Tory Lord McAlpine being wrongly accused of child abuse.

The programme had previously shelved a sex abuse investigation into BBC TV presenter and DJ Jimmy Savile.

Lord Patten, appearing before the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, said Mr Entwistle had asked him if the BBC Trust - the corporation's governing body - was "urging him to go".

He was told: "We are not urging you to go. But we are not urging you to stay."

Lord Patten said Mr Entwistle and his lawyers insisted he would not leave with six months pay and he said the director general had asked for more than the 12 months pay he eventually got.

"He wanted to go on 12 months and more," he told the committee.

This was a marathon session, examining the whole BBC crisis, from the decision not to broadcast Newsnight's investigation into Jimmy Savile to the departure of a director general and beyond.

For well over two and a half hours, Lord Patten and the acting director general Tim Davie faced searching, sometimes aggressive, questioning from MPs.

Both handled it much better than the hapless George Entwistle whose weak performance a month ago sowed the seeds of his downfall.

Once again Philip Davies led the attack, at one stage accusing Lord Patten of spending a fortune on headhunters to hire Mr Entwistle and then another fortune getting rid of him. Shouldn't he resign?

Lord Patten, who had already crossed swords with Mr Davies, said "I'm not sure this Socratic dialogue with you is getting us very far" but eventually conceded his share of the responsibility.

The BBC pair received this accolade on Twitter from committee member Ben Bradshaw: "Patten a class act, Tim Davie acting BBC DG displayed reassuring grip."

Questioned about how much Mr Entwistle had asked for, he said: "He didn't ask for two years but he did ask for more."

Lord Patten said there had been feverish negotiation on 11 November and he took advice from the BBC's lawyers.

He said they told him that if the pay-off deal was refused, Mr Entwistle could go to an industrial tribunal and would stand to win an extra £80,000 on top of the £450,000.

Lord Patten said: "We did not have grounds for dismissal. We could either accept a consensual deal for 12 months, or the situation would drift on and we would find ourselves with a constructive dismissal (claim) and also an unfair dismissal."

He also said that if Mr Entwistle was found to have done anything in breach of his contract, "we can claw back some of the remunerations that has been paid".

'Decent man'

Referring to Mr Entwistle, Lord Patten said he refused to "trash a decent man" who had been "overwhelmed" by events.

He added that he "wondered by the end of it how much his heart was in it. I think he found the whole thing an appalling experience".

Earlier, Lord Patten told the MPs the BBC must not "abandon or resign from investigative journalism" because of the mistakes made by Newsnight.

He said there was a need for a "belt and braces" approach to make sure such "shoddy journalism" was not repeated.

But he added: "The BBC must not abandon or resign from investigative journalism. It's important that your journalistic standards are even higher for investigative journalism."

Some of the other key exchanges included:

  • Lord Patten was asked about Mr Entwistle's performance at the culture committee on 23 October and he said it was not the first time someone had been "monstered" by a select committee
  • The acting director general, Tim Davie, told the committee the BBC was not "falling apart" but said staff obviously had concerns and were "aghast at the failings" in the second Newsnight programme
  • Mr Davie said: "It was a bad editorial mistake and there will be consequences"
  • Lord Patten said the BBC and its licence fee-payers would have to bear the costs of the internal Pollard Review, which he is expecting to be completed by Christmas
  • The committee was told the Pollard Review had cost £200,000 in legal costs so far
  • During a testy exchange with Philip Davies, a Conservative MP, Lord Patten was asked if he was seen by some BBC executives as a "patsy"
  • He also reacted angrily to one particular line of questioning by Mr Davies, who asked him how many hours he spent at the BBC - saying it was reported he had up to 13 other "jobs" while he was "presiding over the shambles at the BBC"
  • He refused Mr Davies's request to provide a breakdown of his time spent on BBC work, saying the question was "impertinent"
  • Lord Patten said the other jobs he had did not take up much of his time, and he pointed out that one of those was Chancellor of Oxford University, a job Harold Macmillan had carried out while he was prime minister
  • Lord Patten also said he "did not buy the idea that the BBC is a hotbed of Trots(kyists)".

The BBC has been mired in controversy since October - on 2 October, Newsnight editor Peter Rippon blogged about why an investigation into sex abuse allegations involving former BBC DJ and television presenter Savile had been shelved in December 2011.

Lord Patten clashed with Conservative MP Philip Davies over his own handling of the recent turmoil at the BBC

The following day ITV aired a documentary which included serious allegations about the presenter, who died in October 2011.

This led to a stream of allegations about Savile's behaviour during the 1970s, 80s and 90s, when he was a household name in Britain as the presenter of the BBC's Jim'll Fix It.

On 2 November, Newsnight aired a programme in which Steve Messham, a former resident of the Bryn Estyn children's home in Wrexham, claimed he had been abused by an unnamed senior politician of the Thatcher era at the home.

It subsequently emerged he had wrongly identified to Newsnight the former Conservative Party treasurer, Lord McAlpine, as being one of his abusers.

Although Lord McAlpine was not named in the programme, his name emerged on the internet and he then came out in public to angrily deny being involved.

A BBC inquiry later said some of the basic journalistic checks had not been completed; identification was not confirmed by photograph with Mr Messham, and no right of reply was offered to Lord McAlpine. And the BBC paid £185,000 in libel damages to the peer.

Last week Tony Hall, a former BBC news executive who spent the last decade running the Royal Opera House, agreed to become the next director general early next year.

Lord Patten said he was "greatly looking forward" to working with Lord Hall.

He said: "The biggest task we face is restoring trust. Trust in the BBC has taken a knock.

"The BBC is still trusted more than any news organisation but that is not a statement of complacency because we have shot ourselves in the foot. We have to rebuild that trust."

For his part, Mr Davie said the BBC needed to be more transparent and "slightly more humble".

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