Licence to spend

PUBLISHED : Monday, 29 May, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 29 May, 2006, 12:00am


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In the past, the BBC had great difficulty hanging on to its stars. Many top comedians, presenters, writers and technicians were eventually lured away by the commercial opposition, usually for much bigger pay cheques. How times have changed.

Following a series of leaks, it is clear that the corporation - whose budget comes largely from the compulsory GBP126.50 ($1,840) per household licence fee - is awash with cash.

Apparently, executives thought nothing of spending GBP100,000 on Christmas parties for its radio stars last year. One was even held at Marco Pierre White's Criterion restaurant in Piccadilly, where champagne costs up to GBP125 a bottle.

BBC bosses are also under fire for plans to spend GBP4 million on works of art for the various London offices, including GBP900,000 on a sculpture that will beam light 1,000 metres into the air, through a glass turret, atop its World Service radio headquarters at Aldwych, in central London.

Then there is the GBP1.7 million earmarked for a plaza-sized piece that resembles a radio dial, while tens of thousands of pounds have been set aside for murals and 'art walls' as backdrops in reception areas.

These revelations come at a time when BBC chiefs are already battling for people's hearts and minds in an effort to introduce a GBP25 rise in the licence fee to fund digital expansion.

As if that was not enough, another leak has revealed just how much the BBC is paying some of its radio stars, and it is well above private-sector rates. Chris Moyles, the flagship Radio 1 breakfast DJ, earns GBP630,000 a year for his five-times-a-week show, three times that of his nearest Radio 1 rival, presenter Jo Whiley.

The 'king of radio', venerable Irishman Terry Wogan, pockets GBP800,000 annually for his two-hour slot each week day, or more than GBP25 a minute. TV frontman and award-show host Jonathan Ross, meanwhile, earns GBP600,000 pounds for his radio slot on Saturdays.

Clearly, this is all pretty damning stuff, especially given the fact that BBC executives are looking to shed 3,700 jobs as part of a move to trim their 'bloated' London operations, and relocate thousands more to the provinces, where costs are lower. Understandably, union leaders are seething.

Opposition-party MPs are crying foul, too. They claim that the compulsory licence fee amounts to a tax and, therefore, the BBC's purse should be liable to greater public scrutiny.

Commercial-radio rivals are wondering how they can compete, especially as advertising revenue is falling. The answer is that they can't, as their sliding ratings prove.

BBC radio ratings, meanwhile, rise inexorably, much like the corporation's spending.