Friday 21 October 2016

Ex-BBC bosses condemn move to disclose pay deals of top presenters

Published 12/10/2016 | 21:01

The Government wants the BBC to reveal what it pays its top broadcasters
The Government wants the BBC to reveal what it pays its top broadcasters

Two former BBC chiefs have poured scorn on the Government's decision to force the broadcaster to publish the pay of dozens of its top presenters.

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Tory peer and ex-BBC Trust chairman Lord Patten of Barnes branded the move an "unpleasant populist gesture".

While former BBC director general John Birt, an independent crossbencher, dismissed it as "mischief-making" and called for the requirement to be ditched.

The pair unleashed their criticism of the measure during a debate in the House of Lords on the corporation's new 11-year royal charter.

Under the agreement the BBC will have to disclose the pay of staff and "talent" earning more than £150,000 a year.

Publishing the draft charter last month, the Government defended the move arguing the BBC should be as "open and transparent as possible".

But speaking during the debate, Lord Patten: "It is ludicrous. It's ludicrous to talk about transparency over what Strictly Come Dancing presenters get when we are not having transparency about how the licence fee settlement is established in the first place.

"There's no public interest whatsoever in knowing what Gary Lineker gets paid.

"It's merely a rather unpleasant populist gesture to some of our tabloids. That's all it amounts to.

"I think it will probably lead to pushing up talent pay rather than the opposite."

Of the draft charter agreement, Lord Patten said: "I think this is an improvement, but I think the BBC is very often a great deal better than we deserve."

Lord Birt said: "I think the new requirement to reveal the compensation of top talent is low politics.

"Requiring the BBC to reveal Gary Lineker's compensation is just mischief-making.

"It will invade the privacy of people who are not determining how to spend the public's money.

"It will frighten away talent and it will so unnecessary dissension. I ask government simply to droip this requriement."

He added: "But overall I welcome this new framework. It is an improvement."

Earlier in his speech, Lord Birt said he used to believe the royal charter was the best way to run the BBC, but had changed his mind after successive government "raids" on the corporation, without consultation or parliamentary scrutiny.

He pointed to the BBC being forced in 2010 to take over the funding of the World Service, which had previously been paid for by government, and also taking on the obligation to pay for free licences for the over-75s in 2015.

Lord Birt said the impact of both "raids" over a decade would take 25% out of the core resources available to the BBC.

Highlighting that royal charters dated from Norman times, he said: "They were used by tyrannical kings to bypass Parliament. They should have no place in modern times.

"I accept that a royal charter is a done deal on this occasion.

"But let us all agree that the BBC needs the protection of statute next time round."

Opening the debate, culture minister Lord Ashton of Hyde defended the lowering of the threshold at which BBC pay details would have to be published, pointing out it was close to the Prime Minister's salary.

He stressed the need to " make the BBC more transparent and accountable given the considerable amount of public funding it receives".

On the deal reached in the draft, Lord Ashton said: "I think we have come to the right outcome after a good process.

"These changes will secure the future of the BBC, strengthen it and give it an unprecedented degree of independence.

"The world's finest broadcaster deserves nothing less."

Labour peer Lord Alli, the former Planet 24 boss, was concerned about the "distinctiveness" rule in the charter being used to stop the BBC making popular programmes.

He feared regulator Ofcom could be "over zealous" in its application of the rule in relation to the BBC.

He told peers: "I believe... that the distinctiveness test should be over the totality of the BBC services and not individual channels, genres or programmes.

"I think Ofcom need to take particular note of that."

The Bishop of Norwich, the Rt Rev Graham Richard James, said the public was generally "extremely well-served" by the BBC, but felt it was "insufficiently distinctive" in relation to its religious coverage.

He said: "Less effort is put into interpreting a religious world than a political one, even though the world population is much more religious than it is political.

"Sport has a galaxy of professional pundits and commentators. Religious affairs has one correspondent and not even a religion editor."

Pointing to the educational role of the BBC, the bishop added: "Our increasing religious illiteracy as a nation does us no favours in our understanding of and our relationships with the wider world, especially the world beyond Europe."

Broadcaster and Labour peer Lord Bragg said of the BBC: "It's so good we take it for granted."

He felt the agreed draft charter was "overall a positive result".

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