Entertainment & Arts

Pay row overshadows 'get a grip' plan

The forecourt of New Broadcasting House in London
Image caption The BBC Trust has faced questions over the pay-off to George Entwistle

Lord Patten's determination to show that the BBC leadership is getting on top of the crisis, after the resignation of its director general, hasn't got off to a good start.

The approval by the BBC Trust of the £450,000 pay-off to George Entwistle has had a predictably bad reception at Westminster and has given further ammunition to those who want Lord Patten himself to resign.

It has also been criticised by senior MPs, who had earlier supported his moves to "get a grip" on the Corporation. The Culture Secretary Maria Miller echoed complaints by other MPs that it was "tough to justify" and has asked Mr Entwistle to reflect on whether he should take it.

There's also been confusion over the decision to ask the BBC's director of news, Helen Boaden, and her deputy, Steve Mitchell, to step aside from their normal roles.

Both storms have overshadowed the first public interviews by the BBC's acting director general Tim Davie, who also vowed to "get a grip".

Lord Patten has now clarified why the Trust thought it was right to pay Mr Entwistle one year's salary, instead of the six months' pay-off he was thought to have been entitled to.

Originally the Trust said it was because the former director general would be continuing to work on BBC matters, including the Jimmy Savile inquiries.

That explanation didn't impress John Whittingdale, the chairman of the Culture, Media and Sport select committee, who was the first to complain that the payment was unjustified.

Lord Patten has written to Mr Whittingdale, explaining that if the BBC Trust had terminated Mr Entwistle's contract he would have been entitled to a year's salary.

Because he resigned, the notice period was six months. He made it clear that the Trust would have considered sacking the director general if he hadn't resigned.

He wrote: "In the absence of George's honourable offer to resign, I would have had to speak to the Trustees about the option of termination by us (which, fortunately, was not necessary).

Image caption John Whittingdale was quick to complain about Mr Entwistle's £450,000 payoff

"In circumstances where we needed to conclude matters quickly and required George's ongoing co-operation in a number of very difficult and sensitive matters, including the inquiries into issues associated with Savile, I concluded that a consensual resignation on these terms was clearly the better route."

That didn't cut any ice with the MPs, as Lord Patten should have foreseen. When he first became chairman of the BBC Trust, he said the high pay of senior management was a "toxic" issue which he needed to tackle straight away.

The BBC has indeed cut the senior management pay bill by some 20%, and several senior figures have left - which may in fact have contributed to the BBC's difficulties over the last month. But Mr Entwistle's large pay-off is a reminder that the issue hasn't gone away.

As Mr Whittingdale put it: "A lot of people will 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 licence fee payers' money".

Chains of command

The second issue - the stepping aside of the BBC's director of news, Helen Boaden, and her deputy, Steve Mitchell - has also spread confusion, not least because the news was leaked prematurely.

That forced the BBC to issue a statement of clarification making it clear that the pair had had nothing to do with the flawed Newsnight programme, which wrongly implicated Lord McAlpine in allegations of child abuse.

What has happened is that Mr Davie, in his first move as the acting director general, has restored a single "chain of command" in the Corporation's news department while the issues over the two separate Newsnight investigations into child abuse are resolved.

He's asked the director and deputy director of news to step aside from their duties until the completion of the Pollard Inquiry into the first Newsnight row - which was about the shelving of an investigation into Jimmy Savile last December.

Image caption The stepping aside of Boaden and her deputy has spread further confusion

Because they were going to give evidence to that inquiry, Boaden and Mitchell had already stepped back from the BBC's coverage of the Savile crisis. That meant they were not responsible for the second Newsnight broadcast 10 days ago, which wrongly implicated Lord McAlpine.

Mr Davie has decided that having two chains of command has caused confusion, so he has appointed new figures to lead the news division until the Pollard inquiry reports.

Meanwhile, Mr Davie has now received a report on how the second Newsnight broadcast came to be approved for transmission.

Some thought he might take swift action on that, to show that the leadership really has got a grip. Today he said he needed time to go through the findings and must also act fairly, because some staff may face disciplinary action.

That is understandable. But if he is to stem the current crisis he hasn't got very long.

Nor have Lord Patten and the BBC Trust as they start the search for a new director general, to restore trust in the Corporation and fundamentally restructure its management.

Update: 19:23

This evening Mr Davie has taken further action.

The BBC has published a summary of the MacQuarry Report, detailing how the Newsnight report came to be broadcast.

It says the failings of the programme were unacceptable - basic journalistic checks were not completed and it was not clear who had ultimate editorial responsibility for the report.

In response, as announced earlier in the day, the executive board has re-established a single editorial chain of command.

In addition, disciplinary proceedings are to begin immediately, though the BBC has not named any of those involved.

And a senior external figure with a proven record of overseeing journalism will be appointed as a non-executive of the BBC.

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