BBC director-general Mark Thompson today defended the £350,000 paid out in expenses to the corporation’s top executives over the past five years as “reasonable and justified”.
Following yesterday’s publication of the salaries and expenses of the BBC’s 50 top-earning managers, Thompson said it was now the most open organisation in the public sector.
But he defended the corporation’s refusal to release details of the pay of its top stars, warning of a “talent drain” to the commercial sector if the information had to be made public.
Responding to numerous inquiries under the Freedom of Information Act and general calls for greater transparency, the BBC published thousands of claims, revealing that executives spent public money on luxury hotels, vintage champagne, “thank you” dinners, parties and even a private aeroplane.
In interviews with BBC1’s Breakfast and Radio 4’s Today programmes, Thompson said he believed that every claim had been justified.
“Every one of these expenses in my view was reasonable and was justified,” he said.
“I don’t believe that I’ve yet seen any evidence that a single one of these line-by-line expenses has been in any way unjustified.”
He defended his own claim for £2,236.90 of licence fee-payers’ money to fly his family home from a holiday in Italy after he was forced to cut the trip short to deal with the storm over the lewd messages left by Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross on Fawlty Towers actor Andrew Sachs’s answering machine.
He said he had been on a driving holiday in a remote part of Sicily at the time, and cleared the decision with the chairman of BBC Trust, Sir Michael Lyons, and the independent chairman of the BBC audit committee.
“I took the car, drove 150 miles to the airport, abandoning my family without a car in a hotel in Sicily,” he said.
“I think, rather understandably, they felt that, given the circumstances, they should come back too.”
Despite the disclosure that 27 executives earned more than the prime minister’s £195,000 salary – led by Thompson on £647,000 a year – he insisted they were paid significantly less than their private sector counterparts.
“We all accept that we should get paid much less than our equivalents do in the private sector,” he said.
“It is quite reasonable that I should get paid a third of the equivalent in the private sector.
“I’m afraid that people who are making decisions about whether they should become head of television for the BBC or the head of radio aren’t comparing themselves with a career choice about becoming prime minister.”
And he dismissed suggestions that his job was secure.
“Half of all director-generals get fired. If you look at the history of director-generals it would be very hard to look at that history and say this was a particularly secure place of employment,” he told the Today programme.
“It’s probably in some ways one of the most exposed roles in the entire public sector.”
Thompson was asked by Today presenter Sarah Montague how journalists in the newsroom who earned “a fraction” of Thompson’s salary should feel about the amount spent.
He replied: I’ve been one of them and I’ve worked my way up through the BBC. I know what its like to work on the smallest salaries on the BBC because I’ve been there.”
Thompson said yesterday’s disclosures marked a “step change” in the amount of information being made public by the BBC, with a new commitment to the quarterly publication of the expenses of more than 100 executives.
“Unlike the MPs, we have not been in the courts saying our expenses should not be published,” he said.
“If you look at what we published yesterday, we haven’t redacted it.
There is a tiny number of redactions for security or commercial confidentiality.
“We are being as open as we possibly can be. We think we are being more open now than any other public sector organisation currently in this country.”