BBC payoff dodges legal costs

If the Beeb hadn’t shelled out to departing DG, licence fee-payers would have lost even more

Tom Walker

Tom Walker, employment law partner, Manches

There has been a huge outcry in the press and the House of Commons about the 12 months’ severance package paid to the departing BBC director general George Entwistle. As the BBC lurches from crisis to crisis, people want to find scalps and cast blame.

Let’s start with the facts. Although Entwistle had only held the director general job since September 2012, he began his career in the BBC in 1989. Although his notice period if he chose to resign was 6 months, it was 12 months if dismissed by the BBC.

When someone steps into a leadership role, they have to accept their job can be at risk if, through no direct fault of their own, mistakes are made in their organisation. They take leadership responsibility not only for the organisation’s successes but also its failures.

Where there has been dishonesty or serious harassment, an organisation sometimes has to take a stand. To pay people off may be seen as condoning the action. It also sends out a sign of weakness. However strong the case against an individual, should someone threaten litigation, they may well get a payoff.

This is a very different set of circumstances to the Entwistle case. Yes, reform is needed at the BBC, but kneejerk reactions do not assist, and in fact aid feelings of insecurity throughout an organisation.

The economic crisis that began four years ago has been blamed on the short-term focus of the financial markets and those working in them. When the MP’s expenses scandal broke and it was necessary to discipline and even prosecute certain dishonest politicians, there were calls for the whole of the UK’s constitution to be changed. In the age of 24-hour news there is pressure on everyone to have an opinion immediately. At times, such a rush to deliver comes at the expense of a calm consideration of the problem.

The cries of dismay that “licence fee-payers’ money” had been paid to Entwistle ignore the careful way in which the chairman of the BBC Trust Chris Patten dealt with his departure.

It was certainly within Patten’s range of options to agree a process that involved a payout of Entwistle’s full notice period in return for a settlement of all claims. We do not know what actions could have been brought against the BBC by Entwistle should he have been dismissed without notice.

Licence fee-payers can now take comfort that their fees will not be going on lawyers, litigation or additional settlement sums. It is true that the BBC’s reputation is under scrutiny but Patten has at least ensured that in a time of crisis, the corporation behaved in a measured way and with decency.