I had barely heard of Mark Byford until the rows about his payoff.
He was appointed deputy director general (DG, the BBC’s name for the CEO) in Jan 2004. Within three weeks Greg Dyke resigned as DG because the BBC was criticised by the Hutton report on the death of David Kelly (part of the fallout of Tony Blair’s machinations to get public backing for joining Bush in toppling Saddam Hussein). Byford was appointed acting DG. That lasted for five months until Mark Thompson was appointed DG in Jun 2004. It may or may not be relevant, in view of what happened later that the two Marks were good friends and fellow Catholics.
Things started to become difficult in 2008 with Sachsgate. With Jonathan Ross (now 52), his co-host for the week, Russell Brand (now 38) thought it funny to phone Andrew Sachs (then 78) on air and leave a message on his answering machine about how Russell had “fucked your granddaughter”. Further messages “apologising” were left with amusing ditties like “it was consensual and she wasn’t menstrual”. Unsurprisingly, Sachs complained, as did 45,000 listeners (an exceptionally large number).
A substantial row developed in which it emerged that Ross was paid prodigiously by the BBC, which some thought odd since he was apparently being paid largely for a celebrity status which the BBC had created for him. The BBC was later fined £150k for the prank, Ross was suspended without pay for 12 weeks, and Brand resigned to become a household name, consulting for his purported expertise on a wide range of matters.
In July 2010 it emerged that Byford had flown to South Africa business class to see the World Cup final. The BBC had picked up the £5k bill. It emerged that senior BBC executives had spent £82k on flights in the first quarter of 2010. Mark Thompson had a habit of including even items as small as 70p in his claims, which some felt a bit much for someone paid nearly £1M a year.
Thompson announced in October 2010, that Byford, then 52, who had worked for the BBC for 32 years, latterly on £475k/year would leave in June 2011 with a redundancy payment of over £800k, as part of Thompson’s effort towards “simplifying structures and reducing the number of senior managers”, which a cynic might take to mean that he had not really been needed in the first place.
The BBC has a curious corporate structure. The chairman is not chairman of the board, but chairman of the BBC Trust, which is part regulator for the BBC and part cheerleader for the BBC. Its chairman was Michael Lyons. Few people have ever heard of him. A former Labour party councillor and council CEO, he had drifted into membership of various commissions providing the answers that Blair wanted. In 2007 he had been appointed chairman of the BBC. The Royal Charter (Sep 2006) provides that the chairman shall be appointed for a fixed term of up to 5 years, which may be renewed (multiple times) for up to 5 years each time. Lyons was not felt to have been a success and his appointment was not renewed.
On 1 May 2011 Christopher Patten took over. Six months later Jimmy Savile, OBE, KCSG. KCSG is not an obscure British knighthood but designates a Knight Commander of the Pontifical Equestrian Order of St Gregory the Great. It was bestowed on Savile by John Paul II in 1990.
A year after his death the Savile sexual abuse scandal broke. The details were bizarre and large numbers of eminent figures were left looking extremely stupid, to say the least. It was particularly embarrassing for the BBC. Many episodes of abuse had taken place on BBC premises and it was the BBC who had built him up into a public, and apparently irreproachable, figure in the first place.
But matters got much worse when it emerged that the BBC Newsnight team had begun an investigation into Savile’s paedophile activity immediately after his death and had a programme scheduled for broadcast on 7 Dec 2011. It was cancelled and instead the BBC showed two Savile tributes over the Christmas break. Most people concluded this was either scandalous or bizarrely incompetent.
On 17 September 2012 Mark Thompson left to become CEO of the NY Times Company and was succeeded by George Entwistle, who had joined the BBC in 1989 as a trainee. He resigned on 10 Nov 2012 after making a fool of himself in attempts to explain the cancelled Newsnight programme. Patten agreed that the BBC should pay him £450k to leave after his 54 days in office, which some thought a tad excessive. The Public Accounts Committee reported that:
1. The severance package awarded by the BBC Trust to the former Director General was out of line both with public expectations and what is considered acceptable elsewhere in the public sector. The Director General resigned under a compromise agreement that included 12 months’ salary of £450,000 in lieu of notice. This was twice the amount he was contractually entitled to in the event of his resignation. By agreeing to this payment, the BBC Trust may have secured the Director General’s quick departure but it did not act in the wider public interest. Public servants should not be rewarded for failure. The BBC must ensure that severance payments do not exceed what is absolutely necessary or reward under-performance.
2. The BBC Trust agreed to pay the former Director General additional benefits that we consider an unacceptable use of licence fee payers’ money. The Trust agreed to give him 12 months’ private medical cover and contribute to the cost of legal fees and public relations advice connected with his resignation. The BBC Trust should not have agreed to these terms and it should make it clear to all BBC managers that such payments will not be offered in the future.
Patten has spent most of the time since fighting to retain his job, although it is far from clear to what extent he is to blame.
The real question is whether after all the brouhaha things will improve and we will stop seeing overgenerous payouts to those who work for the public.