Expenses scandal masks bigger BBC issue

The hoo-ha surrounding the BBC expenses scandal is obscuring more pressing issues concerning the very future of the licence fee

Ray Snoddy

When times are tough something always comes along to relieve the gloom. The worst recession since the Second World War is matched by the best political expenses scandal yet.

Duck houses and clearing out moats has proved more powerful than Prozac in engaging all but the most clinically depressed.

Then, just as the Telegraph campaign starts to run out of steam, along comes the new multimedia series, BBC Executive Expenses, which has an online game attached – choose your all-time favourite of the past five years.

I have a soft spot for the activities of the normally parsimonious BBC deputy director Mark Byford. It takes a particular mindset to claim £14.99 for a history of Queens Park Rangers when you are a passionate fan of Leeds United. Perhaps he is about to shift his allegiance considering Leeds remain rooted in League One.

There is obviously a great deal of creative merit in the £500 claim by Jana Bennett, head of BBC Vision, for a handbag and cash stolen when she was on “official business”.

Hasn’t the lady heard of home insurance which protects your property outside the home?

But for sheer artistic symmetry, the prize so far has to go to director-general Mark Thompson for hiring a private plane on expenses to get back in time to investigate and then clear the controversial expenses claims of BBC creative director Alan Yentob.

That one deserves a BAFTA for Thompson, who naturally charges his BAFTA membership to his BBC expense account.

There is a lot of original entertainment in the expenses of the BBC executives, but no sign of the outright criminality that has marked the behaviour of some backbench MPs.

What clearly infects much of the BBC is a sort of timeless insouciance that thinks the Luvvie world of the past will go on for ever. The public mood has changed and the behaviour of BBC executives will have to change too.

You can be sure of one thing. Full disclosure is a powerful weapon and BBC executives will be more careful how they spend licence payer’s money in the future.

And now we can all look forward to the publication of brand new episodes every quarter.

But three months is a long time in politics – and the media.

Perhaps in the interim weeks we can have full disclosure of the expense claims of advertising and marketing executives. That should raise a laugh.

Then more dead time could be filled with a look at journalists’ expenses. When London cabbies hear you are a journalist, provided you have left a decent tip, they thrust pads of empty receipt forms into your hands. What could this possibly mean?

The great BBC expenses scandal, however life-enhancing, has tended to obscure rather more important matters – such as the integrity of the licence fee post-2012.

The shorthand is “top-slicing”, although that is too imprecise a term to describe what is being proposed by the Government.

A top limit of 3.5% would be written into the BBC’s Royal Charter – a percentage calibrated on the amount of the licence fee devoted to analogue switch-off. The entirely worthy aim is the protection of competition for the BBC in areas such as local and regional television news and original children’s programming.

The consultations on the issue are largely window dressing although the Government is probably moderately sincere when it says if anyone has better ideas for funding such programmes now is the time to come forward.

This is a serious problem for Mark Thompson. He has been eloquent – or is that paranoid – in accusing a small group of “ideologically focused” individuals in government and Ofcom of plotting to undermine the Corporation’s funding.

As tough choices come up for final decision, we mustn’t forget the uplifting camaraderie of broadcasters everywhere. The expenses claims show how Thompson happily forked out £2,018.83 of our money on a farewell dinner for Andy Duncan, the man who was replacing him as chief executive of Channel 4. Such heart-warming generosity.

To the neutral observer, the “ideology” seems to be mostly about trying to maintain plurality in the provision of public service broadcasting.

If not the idea of a “contained contestable element” of the licence fee – as Lord Carter elegantly put it – the BBC should try to come up with a better idea.

Perhaps this should now become Mark Thompson’s top priority in the time left over from filling in his expenses and trying to defend the status quo.

The Government will almost certainly push top-slicing through. That and the other proposals in the Digital Britain report would take only a very small bill in the autumn.

Will the new Conservative Government bother to overturn such a provision even though David Cameron has expressed his scepticism about top-slicing the licence fee? They might have other more pressing things to do.

As tough choices come up for final decision, we mustn’t forget the uplifting camaraderie of broadcasters everywhere.

The expenses claims show how Thompson happily forked out £2,018.83 of our money on a farewell dinner for Andy Duncan, the man who was replacing him as chief executive of Channel 4. Such heart-warming generosity.

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