Mark Thompson v Lord Patten: it all goes back to the Queen
Patten looks doomed - but former DG Thompson still has a lot of explaining to do, writes Nigel Horne
UNLESS the former BBC director-general Mark Thompson has lost his marbles since moving to New York and fails to stand up his claim that Lord Patten lied to MPs in July, then it is hard to see how Patten can survive. Or does he have something up his sleeve?
Today's appearance by both men before the Commons public accounts committee (PAC) has the media licking their lips.
The Sunday Times promises a "sulphorous confrontation" when Thompson, who ran the Beeb for eight years until last autumn, seeks to prove that the BBC Trust chairman was fully aware of the over-the-top severance payments being awarded to departing executives, while Patten argues that he was kept in the dark.
In a submission leaked ahead of today's hearing, Thompson has accused Patten of "fundamentally misleading parliament" when he last appeared before the PAC in July. On that occasion, when asked whether certain payoffs had exceeded contractual obligations, Patten exclaimed: "Yes, and if you call a previous director-general of the BBC in due course, I will be as interested as you in why we didn't know."
But Thompson claims in his submission that Patten was "fully briefed, in writing as well as orally" and he has apparently flown back to London with the documents to prove it.
As at least one MP said at the weekend: "If Lord Patten is found to have lied to the committee, that is a resignation offence."
The Sunday Times believes this could be Patten's swansong anyway. The paper claims that ministers have had enough of the BBC Trust and plan to shut it down and hand full oversight to Ofcom.
The trust, its detractors argue, constantly dithers between overseeing the corporation on behalf of licence fee payers and acting as its cheerleader in times of trouble. Enough is enough.
If Patten does go down in flames, there will be many hoping this is the last time we hear the "I just didn't know" defence from a BBC panjandrum.
It was ignorance that finished off George Entwhistle, Thompson's immediate successor as DG, who famously lasted only 54 days before he was forced to resign over the Lord McAlpine/Newsnight debacle and then picked up £450,000 - double his entitlement - by way of a payoff.
His miserable performance before MPs last October, when he admitted to having no recollection of important conversations, and claimed no knowledge of crucial programme content, prompted Commons culture committee chairman John Whittingdale to remark on his "extraordinary lack of curiosity".
Which is where the Queen comes in.
A "lack of curiosity" was also the charge five years previously when another senior BBC boss, Jana Bennett, was criticised for her role in the 2007 'Crowngate' affair.
Readers can be forgiven for failing to recall this awkward episode in the haze of more recent BBC scandals - Savile, McAlpine, Newsnight, etc, etc.
But it led to the resignation of a very able BBC1 controller, Peter Fincham, after it was found that a promotional tape for a new TV series, A Year with the Queen, had been falsely edited to suggest that the monarch had stormed out of an Annie Leibovitz photoshoot. She had done no such thing.
Fincham, presenting the tape as part of the BBC1 autumn launch on 11 July 2007, told journalists it showed the Queen "losing it a bit and walking out in a huff".
Two aspects of this affair continue to puzzle BBC watchers: though Fincham took the fall, it emerged last month that he received a £500,000 payoff (part of which, The Sun reported this weekend, he blew on "doing up his £10 million mansion"). But if he was at fault, and he felt bound to resign as a result, why should he receive a severance package?
And why did the buck stop at Fincham's desk and no higher?
Will Wyatt, a former BBC executive called in to investigate how the dodgy 'Crowngate' promo ever got made, concluded that Fincham had alerted Jana Bennett, who as Director of Vision was in charge of all domestic BBC TV channels, as soon as it became apparent that there was likely to be a public hoo-ha.
On the night of 11 July, BBC staffers got together with the outside production company who made the tape, RDF, and the Palace to draft a statement to go out the next morning, saying the tape had never been intended for public view.
Fincham emailed a copy of the press statement to Bennett - but Wyatt discovered that she had never bothered to read it. Nor, it was claimed, had she alerted Mark Thompson, then three years into his eight-year stint as DG. Yet she knew the matter was "serious" and that the Palace was "very upset". Surely she would want to warn her boss?
Wyatt concluded in his October 2007 report that "given the information she did have, she displayed a lack of curiosity in not getting to the bottom of what exactly the BBC was apologising to the Queen for".
There were those at the time who felt Bennett should have resigned. But she refused to do so and in 2011 moved across to BBC Worldwide, the corporation's commercial arm. After Worldwide made her post redundant last year, she was paid severance of £687,333. This was made up of £404,000 for "loss of office" and £283,333 for ten months' pay in lieu of notice - two months more than she was entitled to.
The National Audit Office discovered last week that between the years 2006 and 2012 the BBC paid out £2.9m more in severance money than it was contractually obliged to.
Mark Thompson may be able to prove to MPs that Lord Patten knew more than he claimed about these generous awards - we shall see. But it was on Thompson's watch that these hefty payoffs began. He still has a lot of explaining to do. ·