BBC chiefs are to face an inquiry into whether presenters such as John Humphrys and Jeremy Paxman are paid too much – as the director-general Mark Thompson admitted that despite the importance of the corporation’s journalism, it would not be immune from redundancies.
The BBC Trust, which represents the licence-fee payer, has ordered the probe into pay following controversy over the high salaries paid to some presenters.
Sir Michael Lyons, the Trust chairman, told MPs: “there is no doubt there is public controversy over whether or not the BBC pays too much for top-performing talent”.
The value-for-money study will examine whether the BBC is paying a market rate or setting it.
Thompson clashed with MPs when he defended the BBC’s refusal to divulge just how much it pays.
Tory MP Nigel Evans said MPs had to disclose their pay and many licence-fee payers were struggling to pay and had a right to know.
But Thompson insisted that the BBC’s employees had a right to confidentiality.
He also sought to reassure MPs that the BBC would maintain the quality of news and cultural affairs programmes after admitting that redundancies were on the way.
“We are more committed to journalism than anything else. But no part of the BBC should be immune from technology change,” he said.
He added that management would present proposals for job cuts to the Trust in September and they would be made public in October.
Adam Price, MP for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr, pressed Thompson on whether “journalists would be included in the thousands of jobs” to be axed.
Thompson said: “The right time and the first time to talk about this is when we have a complete picture.”
But he said he had told BBC staff that he did not believe the number of job losses would be as great as the 3,500 that had been axed over the current three-year period.”Where will they fall? It does depend on the decisions to be made. It will vary across the organisation.”
Meanwhile, news remains top of the BBC’s agenda, but the corporation must retain audience trust, Thompson claimed at the launch of the BBC’s 2007 annual report in London on Tuesday. Thompson addressed a suggestion made the same day by ITV executive chairman Michael Grade that the reputation of TV news could potentially be damaged, along with all programming, by recent controversies over audiences beng misled on phone-in competitions.
Thompson said he agreed that audience trust should not be compromised.
“I think that Michael Grade is absolutely right to say that trust is essential to audiences and to the whole of broadcasting, particularly important to the BBC, but also to all public service broadcasters and arguably all broadcasters,” he said.
“Should we ever compromise on trust? No we shouldn’t. Should there be any tolerance for, however good the intentions, misleading or betraying the public? No there shouldn’t be.”
Grade said at a Royal Television Society breakfast that the trust issue extended to all programming, including news. “What I am advocating is a zero-tolerance approach to it,” he said.
“You simply cannot alternate between treating audiences with respect and treating them with what is effectively contempt.”
The BBC’s annual report was for the first time presented as a two-part review by both the BBC executive and the Trust.
The BBC Trust’s report included the findings of a commissioned survey showing that news remains the most fundamental service provided by the BBC, and that audiences place a very high value on the BBC setting the standard for high-quality journalism. In the survey in February of 4,500 adults, news and education was rated top of the BBC’s public services.
Thompson paid tribute to the particular strengths of the BBC including “the delivery of journalism [which] was outstanding across the year in a very big year for news”.
Sir Michael Lyons said that the core message from the report was the “significant gap” between what the public value and what they believe the BBC to be doing in the area of creative innovation.
He said it would be a “real challenge for the BBC to do more in the future” and one which Thompson said the corporation “should rise to”.