MPs criticise BBC over response to licence fee probe

A group of MPs has criticised the BBC‘s handling of a Commons inquiry into how it spends the licence fee and how much it pays staff.

BBC chairman Sir Michael Lyons and director-general Mark Thompson were called before the Commons culture, media and sport select committee last July to answer questions about the corporation’s annual report.

The committee sent a series of follow-up questions to the BBC after the meeting, but the group said this morning it was unclear why some of the questions had been answered by the BBC Executive while others were taken up by the BBC Trust.

“We are disappointed with the manner in which the BBC has approached its response to our questions,” the committee said today.

“We hope that in future years the BBC will provide a more robust response which makes clear where accountability lies for particular issues.

“We believe that there should be greater clarity as to who speaks for the BBC on significant policy issues, and we are also concerned that the BBC Executive may be pursuing policy outcomes that the BBC Trust has not yet had the opportunity to consider, approve or oppose.”

The cross-party group of MPs, chaired by Conservative MP John Whittingdale, had asked the BBC Trust to publish anonymous staff salary tables grouped by pay bracket.

In its written response, the Trust said that although “the level of fees paid to talent is an area of concern” for some licence fee payers, revealing how much staff are paid was “likely to cause commercial prejudice to the BBC”.

The Trust has, however, asked the BBC executive to consider disclosing more information about how much staff are paid, to “improve transparency” to licence fee payers.

Explaining the problems with transparency over pay, the Trust said that it “must give due regard to issues of commercial prejudice and to the BBC’s duties under the law to protect personal information.”

It said: “Disclosing talent costs, even if grouped in bands, is likely to cause commercial prejudice to the BBC. It could provide the BBC’s competitors with valuable pricing information, inflate costs, and deter individuals from working with the BBC as against other broadcasters.”

The Trust also feared it could be accused of failing to protect personal data by revealing salary details.

Late last year, it commissioned an independent review into how much its top on-air and on-screen talent are paid, which is due to be published this spring.

The committee said it was confused as to why the Trust appeared willing to look into top stars’ pay but not that of ordinary staff.

“It is not immediately clear to us why the BBC Trust takes different views of transparency of employee costs and transparency of talent costs, and why grouping of payments in bands for one but not the other presents data protection or breach of confidence issues.”

The issue of how much the BBC pays its talent has received much publicity since the salaries of stars including Jonathan Ross were leaked to the press last year.

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