Bet you thought BBC – known to Brits sentimentally as ‘Auntie’ – was an acronym for British Broadcasting Corporation. Well might it have been until last Monday, when it transmogrified into Backstabbing, Bitching and Cantankerousness in a frenzy, all performed in the best, possible taste, of course.
Before the probing House of Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC), old Auntie’s knickers became so twisted, the principal antagonists appeared to be verbally trying to throttle each other with the elastic – a blustering Lord Patten, chair of the BBC Trust, in one corner, festering in the other, ex-Director General, Mark Thompson, now boss of The New York Times.
Played out live on BBC Parliament, it made unedifying viewing – an acrimonious, real-life, corporate bare-knuckle fight laid bare. And, though a chill aplomb was somehow retained, the sparring was far nastier than any ruckus that’s kicked off down EastEnder’s Queen Vic, BBC viewers’ favourite soap pub.
The nub of the issue was: who knew what about a £1M-plus golden goodbye to one-time Deputy DG, Mark Byford, which, based on the current Euro=£ exchange rate, is probably enough to buy Greece.
Thompson accused Patten of misleading Parliament over the pay-off, but the last governor of Hong Kong – remembered by the Chinese as ‘Fatty Pang’ – denied the charge, insisting it was before his time as chatelaine of Auntie’s mansion.
The problem for both combatants, however, was that this left yet another fetid odour overlaying the stench of iffy severance largesse doled out to Corporation managers, like £700,000 – plus £55,000 she wasn’t entitled to – to Jana Bennett, director of TV and ‘Vision’, who once ordered a £100 bouquet for Jonathan Ross, as he mulled a humongous, £18M, chat-show contract Byford practically begged him to autograph.
All is endemic of a culture of outrageous palm-greasing that’s infected the Beeb, as it seeks to shed an overload of managers, many with no links to programming.
But the Patten-Thompson spat descended into such a pea-soup fog of colliding egos, alleged memory lapses and conflicting versions of the truth, the committee’s robust chairman, Margaret Hodge, intervened and said emphatically, ‘I’m not having any more lies this afternoon.’
Just for good measure, she added, ‘At the best I think what we have seen is incompetence, a lack of central control, a failure to communicate. At its worse we may have seen people covering their backs by being less than open.’
Ouch! This wasn’t a schoolma’am admonishing a couple of errant fifth formers for telling porkies about who broke a window in the gym. It was two of the most august presences in the history of British broadcasting sitting before her, each adamantly insisting on the righteousness of their take on how the UK’s chief purveyor of entertainment runs its business (or, conversely, frittered away a sizeable chunk of its annual £3.7bn in public funds, a.k.a. the Licence Fee).
As Lord Michael Grade, himself a former Chairman, said on BBC2 Newnight later that evening, ‘The BBC doesn’t understand the value of money’.
Sometimes I’m unfairly accused of being anti-Auntie, but I’m not. It is still the platinum standard broadcasters, worldwide, aspire to and its output – on TV, radio or online – is extraordinary.
In fact, its flair for serving up riveting drama, documentary and cultural shows was never better illustrated than by last week’s delights… Simon Schama’s The History of the Jews, gritty, tear-jerky Midwives and the Last Night of the Proms, all veritable televisual feasts.
No, my gripes with the behemoth Beeb are: it’s too rich and powerful for the public good; its current affairs coverage is skewered by an overweening Left-liberal bias (try getting a newsroom job if you haven’t worked for The Guardian); and its venal officer class inhabits a parallel universe no responsible company’s shareholders would tolerate if they uncovered such gross incompetence and nefarious abuse of funds.
Meanwhile, the BBC Trust, specifically under His Haughtiness, Patten, cannot simultaneously be Auntie’s cheerleader and regulator, because that’s a contradiction of roles.
It is clearly unfit for purpose and should be ditched, with the BBC placed under the protection of Ofcom, which regulates Britain’s other, state-run broadcaster, Channel 4.
The excrement hit the fan when the Jimmy Savile paedophile scandal exposed other dark, recesses within an organisation purporting to be the nation’s moral arbiter, but where mutual feather-bedding became the norm
For an insight into this we are beholden to Lucy Adams, the BBC’s outgoing head of HR, whose defence of grotesque pay-offs was: it’s ‘custom and practice.’
Apart from in the murky domain of banking piracy, it is patently not and certainly isn’t replicated in other public service sectors, because never forget that’s exactly what Auntie is.
Ms Adams’ crass ignorance of the real world is, I suppose, understandable from someone paid £420K p.a. – more than twice the salary of another public servant, the Prime Minister – to run the Beeb’s personnel department, where Dinah Rose QC found evidence of bullying and ‘a strong undercurrent of fear’.
Therefore, it was unsurprising, too, that Ms Adams appeared to have suffered a ‘memory lapse’, because she told MPs a memo she claimed at an earlier PAC hearing never to have seen might have actually be drafted by her.
But, after the tsunami of revelations about Beeb management’s magnanimity to each other, how much more evidence is required before it’s decided enough is enough?
As the London Daily Telegraph noted, ‘On perks, salaries and bonuses, too, the BBC hierarchy appeared to operate according to its own rules, with members of the privileged club rewarding each other with incomes commensurate with their egos rather than their talents.’
So where does that leave Patten, already savaged over his handling of the Savile case, the Digital Media Initiative fiasco – in which the Corporation wrote off £100M – and bizarre choice of pondering George Entwistle as DG, who vacated his office after just 54 days with £475,000 in his back pocket?
Anywhere else, such cackhandedness would require Patten’s head on a platter.
But Auntie’s no ordinary organisation. Unlike Caesar’s wife, it always considered itself above suspicion…until now.