Sunday, 8 September 2013

Choose your mammal

Rat or ferret - you choose
I don’t know if I’m allowed to talk about the letter I got on Friday. 
I don’t know because a few days before I left the BBC back in March 2011, I signed a confidentiality agreement. And I've no intention of breaching it. Here or anywhere else.
Funny how things turn out, though. 
What I think I can say is that none of the former BBC colleagues I’ve spoken to in the past 48 hours is prepared to agree to the details of his or her severance package being passed on to the MPs on the Public Accounts Committee.
"Why are we being dragged into this?" one said.
There’s talk of lawyers, actions for breach of confidence and judicial reviews.
The whole BBC pay-off story has been bloody. And whether your preferred mammal-in-a-sack is rat or ferret expect it to get bloodier.
Buried rot
It’s not entirely clear why the MPs want name, rank and numbers of the 150 or so ‘senior managers’ who took redundancy or some other form of severance between 2010 and 2012. "Surely anonymous data will do the job" one former 'senior manager' told me.  
But perhaps they believe that the National Audit Office report and their own inquiries back in July revealed only the tip of some vast rot, buried deep in the corporation. And that a bit of naming and shaming is now in order.
Certainly the BBC’s performance at the committee can’t have given them confidence that public money had been carefully and judiciously spent.
The niff of something not quite wholesome is there in that NAO report. They looked at a sample of 60 deals between December 2009 and December 2010. And their inquiries threw up any number of anomalies in the severance deals of a handful of executives on stratospheric salaries.
Payments in lieu of notice … even when the executive worked the notice period. Payments for unused leave … even though leave policy in the BBC is ‘use it or lose it’. Discretionary payments and sweetheart deals.  
Worse, rules had been broken; procedures hadn’t been followed; paperwork wasn’t complete; deals were signed off in a way that left the BBC unable to show that it had handled public money wisely.
“The BBC has breached its own policies on severance too often without good reason. This has resulted in payments that have not served the best interests of licence fee payers. Weak governance arrangements have led to payments that exceeded contractual entitlements and put public trust at risk. The severance payments for senior BBC managers have, therefore, provided poor value for money for licence fee payers.”
It wouldn't be surprising, then, if MPs thought that was the story with all the BBC's redundancy and severance deals. Cronyism, snouts in the trough etc etc.
They'd be wrong to think that. Here’s why.
Irony
The phrases ‘senior managers’ and ‘executives’ don't quite mean what they seem. They conjure up ranks of pampered desk pilots on annual salaries approaching sums that many licence-fee payers won’t earn in a decade or more.
That’s way off the mark.
It’s true that during the 2000s, pay at the very top of the BBC went crazy. And that craziness is at the heart of this severance row.
That’s not without irony, incidentally. The very people who were so essential to the BBC in the early 2000s that they had to be attracted and motivated by boggling amounts of cash became, by the second half of the decade, among the most easily disposable. Though they had to be motivated once again by boggling amounts of cash. This time to go away.  
As former Newsnight reporter Liz McKean told the Edinburgh TV festival, those inflated salaries at the very top of the BBC created an …
“officer class … that seems to fly in the face of the principles of public service broadcasting … the corporation has been treated as a get-rich scheme …”
But those crazy salaries never reached very far down the corporation. And that created at the time something more than dismay in the BBC’s production offices, regional stations and newsrooms.
Wide range
‘Senior managers’ in the BBC means a very wide range of staff on a very wide range of salaries. 
At the apex, the five ‘executive directors’. 
Below that, team leaders, newsroom editors, programme editors and so on, all on two grades called SMS; the higher, SMS1, the lower, SMS2.
At the top end, heads of this and controllers of that on those £300k, £400k salaries.
At the other end, men and women at the BBC’s sharp end – in charge of projects or putting programmes and news bulletins on air – often on salaries around £60k-70k. Not shabby by any means. But not extravagant riches either.
Many of the 150 ‘senior managers’ whose details the PAC is now demanding are in the latter category. Broadcasters with twenty or thirty years experience, overseeing programmes or editing strands of the News Channel or TV and radio news bulletins with audiences of three or four million. 
And who, when they were told their jobs were closing, were offered the minimum deal their contracts allowed: a month’s salary for every year of service, capped at 24 months; no payment in lieu of notice – many, I understand, were asked to sign away the right even when they were expected to be out of the door within days; no sweeteners, no cash for annual leave not taken years ago.
Fishing trips
All the former colleagues I’ve spoken to have no complaint about their severance deals. None went beyond their contractual entitlement. None feels hard done by, even in the light of those NAO revelations.
None joined the BBC to get rich, either. But of course, a redundancy package of, say, £150k looks a lot of money – even though it’s entirely within the rules for someone leaving on a salary of £70k after twenty-five years.
“The tabloids will just go on fishing trips” a former current affairs editor told me. “They’ll try to make us all look greedy bastards.”
One former news editor added another worry: “We don’t know how they’re going to use this information … we know they’ll stitch us up.” It wasn’t clear who the ‘they’ were in that sentence. “I thought all this was supposed to be confidential” he went on.
Indeed so.
Big beasts
Something else, though, something rather more important sticks in the craw of many former colleagues - including those who are still working for the corporation.
That the cage-fight to the death between former DG Mark Thompson and Trust chairman Lord Patten is yet another gift to those who just don't get public service let alone public service broadcasting.
Precisely who knew what and when about a handful of extravagant pay-offs is slightly beside the point. What really matters is that they could happen at all. That, for a few years, a culture and mindset existed at the very top that thought it was OK.
Former colleagues, including those who've found their current salaries and future prospects capped by the current DG Tony Hall, welcome the way he's rooting out that culture and mindset. And want him to continue. Clearing up the mistakes of the past, like the DMI fiasco. Trying to lead the BBC back to the public service values it aspired to before misguided voices persuaded it to look more like a business ... with executive pay and boardroom habits to match.
It's turning out to be a dirty business - some of the dirt splashing over Hall himself. It'll no doubt get muckier.
But one thing matters more than anything else. Once this is over, Hall is left to finish what he started.

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