Sparks flew this morning in the Culture, Media and Sport select committee, as Lord Patten came to verbal blows with Tory MP Philip Davies over the extent of his involvement in the BBC. Patten has previously come in for criticism over allegedly holding down 14 separate jobs – including his role of chairman of the BBC Trust - but when asked about his day-to-day work at the corporation, he dismissed the MP’s ‘impertinent question.’ ‘Do you want to know my toilet habits?’ Patten scoffed.
Fortunately, Davies didn't, but he went on to describe the BBC as ‘a shambles’, asking: ‘Have you been actually putting in the hours?’ Perhaps wearied by his morning of questioning, Patten had had enough. ‘I don’t think this Socratic dialogue is getting us very far’, he shot back.
Licence-payers’ cash – and its use – was the main topic of Patten’s select committee appearance this morning. Speaking alongside the acting Director General Tim Davie, Patten was quizzed about his work at the BBC, George Entwistle’s resignation, and the on-going inquiries into two Newsnight programmes.
The results of the Pollard inquiry into why Newsnight's programme on Jimmy Savile was shelved will be announced ‘certainly before Christmas’, Patten told the committee. The review won’t come cheap though. The QC employed to do the questioning is being paid for by the licence-payer, as are the legal fees of all BBC employees involved. Tim Davie added that the money to fund this is from a contingency fund usually used for ‘things like funerals’. ‘State funerals’, he clarified. But what about the cost of both the Pollard inquiry, and the second inquiry into the goings-on at the BBC when Savile worked there? It ‘clearly will be expensive’, Patten admitted, due to the number of lawyers involved. But a cap on the cost would have a knock-on effect of capping the inquiry - thus preventing a good job from being done.
Patten was also grilled about the departure of the former Director General, George Entwistle, from the corporation. Patten alleged that he told Entwistle: ‘We’re not urging you to go, but we’re not urging you to stay,’ prior to his departure from the BBC. Entwistle's £450,000 pay-off was, he agreed, ‘a hell of a lot of money’, but less than Entwistle had initially wanted. Had the BBC taken the matter to a tribunal, argued Patten, that sum would ‘almost certainly’ have increased by £80,000. Even so, Patten refused to ‘join in the trashing of a decent man’, adding that he ‘didn’t deserve to have his character demolished’.
Asked about how much of his time is dedicated to the BBC, Patten explained that his role as the BBC Trust Chairman takes up ‘about eight days a week’ at the moment. He mentioned – and then dismissed - the results of an FOI request which had been submitted by the blogger Guido Fawkes which revealed that he had spent an average of just two days a week in the office in the first six months of this year. He works at least three of four days a week, he said, and often spends one or two days a week doing other BBC work.
But on the subject of the McAlpine programme, both Patten and Davie were in agreement. There was ‘appalling editorial judgement’ said Patten, while Davie insisted that any mistakes which happened in the Newsnight programme were the fault of the BBC. ‘I wouldn’t outsource blame’, he said, referring to the BBC’s partnership with the Bureau of Investigative Journalism on the programme.
‘People at the BBC are aghast at what has happened… but they are delivering as usual. This is not an organisation that is falling apart internally.’
And for those who disagree with their verdict? Patten has a solution.
‘Anyone who rubbishes the BBC should be forced to watch Italian TV for a week. If you want Italian TV with bunga bunga, then so be it.’