Preferred BBC Trust chair candidate Rona Fairhead defends licence fee during CMS committee appearance

The preferred candidate to take over from Lord Patten as head of the BBC Trust defended the licence fee during a hearing with MPs.

Businesswoman Rona Fairhead told MPs on the Culture, Media and Sport Committee she was not "an establishment figure" and shrugged off reports she was offered the job because the Government wanted a woman in the role.

She said she had been approached by head-hunters and had not discussed her application with anyone in the Government, saying: "I felt the process was, for my mind, a standard process."

Fairhead said the BBC's governance structure was "very complex", but added: "If I didn't think it was workable at all, I wouldn't have taken on the role".

She told MPs the licence fee was the "most appropriate way to fund" the corporation.

She said: "When I look at the current system on a licence fee basis, I think there are some very, very, significant benefits of the licence fee. It ensures independence, it ensures a universal service for a universal fee and I think it ensures creative freedom."

The former chief executive of the Financial Times group is the Government's "preferred candidate" to head up the Trust, replacing Patten who stood down in May.

Asked by committee member Philip Davies MP if she was "an establishment figure", she said: "I would not have counted myself as an establishment figure and I hope through this process you'll see I'm independent of mind and view."

Fairhead said there was "very little doubt" the BBC "has had a tough time over recent years" but it remained "a vitally important institution in the UK".

She refused to comment on whether her immediate predecessor, a former Conservative MP, had done a good job and said she had never "been politically active".

She told MPs her husband had been a Conservative councillor, adding: "But it's not my husband applying for this role, it's myself."

Fairhead, who confirmed she received a pay-off of more than £1m when she left her previous role at Pearson, said criticism of excessive pay-offs at the BBC had been "legitimate".

The corporation was heavily criticised over excessive payouts given to senior staff including £470,000 to former director general George Entwistle after only 54 days in the job and £680,000 to former chief operating officer Caroline Thomson.

Deputy director general Mark Byford departed the BBC with a total payout of £949,000.

Fairhead said her pay-off was "clearly a lot of money", adding: "I'm not going to apologise that I came from the private sector but I think when you're in the public sector world you have to look at funding through a different lens."

Alternatives to the BBC's traditional funding method have been proposed by politicians, performers and former corporation staff in the run-up to the renewal of its charter, which expires in 2016.

In May, Culture Secretary Sajid Javid said "everything" would be looked at, including licence fees and governance structures, when negotiations get under way.

Senior Tories have previously called the compulsory annual charge made to viewers – currently frozen at £145.50 a year – out of date and warned it faces the axe but BBC executives insist a subscription system could end up costing more money.

The renewal negotiations will take place on the back of a torrid few years that have seen the corporation lambasted for its handling of the Jimmy Savile scandal, massive executive pay-offs and a Newsnight investigation that led to the late Lord McAlpine being wrongly accused of child abuse.

Speaking to the Royal Television Society, Javid said the committee chairman had informed him it had unanimously backed Fairhead's appointment.

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