Entwistle entitled to big pay-off, says BBC chairman

Questioned by parliamentary panel, BBC Trust chairman defends big pay-off to former director general George Entwistle

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 28 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 28 November, 2012, 4:38am

BBC Trust chairman Chris Patten denied that he should have been more involved in controversial Newsnight programmes and defended the amount of time he spends working at the broadcaster in a clash with lawmakers yesterday.

There were sour exchanges as Patten, who was the last British governor of Hong Kong, was grilled by parliament's Culture, Media and Sport Committee, a panel of cross-party lawmakers.

Philip Davies, a Conservative MP on the committee, questioned Patten's commitment to the BBC, and asked for a detailed schedule "on a regular basis" of Patten's weekly activities. Patten said that while the public was entitled to know how much work he did for the BBC, the question was "impertinent".

"If you think I'm going to do a diary for you in order to satisfy some populist pursuit of somebody you didn't want to run an organisation which you don't want to exist, you're kidding yourself," Patten said. "Do you want to know my toilet habits? What else do you want to know?"

Davies called Patten "smug". In a previous meeting, committee members berated former BBC director general George Entwistle for lacking information on the number of sexual abuse complaints within the broadcaster and compared him with NewsCorp deputy chief operating officer James Murdoch, who said he didn't know about the phone hacking that took place within his News International newspapers.

Patten said Entwistle had agreed to resign on November 10 only if he received a pay-off of 12 months' salary, plus fringe benefits such as medical coverage.

But the chairman insisted that Entwistle was "a decent man who was overwhelmed by a very difficult job" and said he would not join in the "general trashing" of his name.

"He doesn't deserve to be bullied or have his character demolished. What's happened is a small tragedy which has been made rather larger by money."

At one point in the crisis, Entwistle had asked Patten: "Are you urging me to go?" and got the reply: "We're not urging you to go but we're not urging you to stay," Patten revealed.

He said that the trust did not have grounds to sack Entwistle and therefore had no choice but to accept his terms.

Otherwise, Patten added, the crisis would have stretched on and the BBC would have found itself "with a constructive dismissal and probably an unfair dismissal on top of that", which would have been even more expensive.

"£450,000 is one hell of a lot of money. But the options I had were absolutely clear," he said.

Entwistle resigned this month following a Newsnight episode that wrongly implied Alistair McAlpine, a politician, had abused a child.

Patten said that his role prevents his intervention in editorial judgments and that he had trusted executives to bring major controversies to his attention.

The McAlpine case "is just a basic journalistic failing, and it's as simple as that", said acting Director General Tim Davie, who appeared with Patten. "I don't want to dismiss it in any way. It was very, very serious."

News Director Helen Boaden and Stephen Mitchell, her deputy, will be asked to return to their duties if they are found innocent of wrongdoing, Davie said today. Boaden and Mitchell were asked to step aside from their duties last month while investigations were ongoing.

When asked if it would be an overreaction to terminate Newsnight, Davie said "in my argument it would be. I'm trying to restore some calm to the BBC".

Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse