The BBC Trust is examining ways to recoup some of the £450,000 pay-off for George Entwistle, the short-lived former director-general, after the package came under renewed attack from MPs and employment specialists.
Lord Patten, chairman of the BBC Trust, said: “We’ve taken legal advice about whether we could actually take any money back.”
Mr Entwistle lost his job after only 54 days amid the fallout from Newsnight’s botched investigation into sex abuse claims against Jimmy Savile. His termination agreement with the BBC states that the broadcaster could recoup its pay-off if the former director-general was found to have been in breach of contract.
The BBC Trust said it was taking legal advice on whether the Pollard Review, which found “chaos and confusion” in the BBC’s senior management after the Newsnight programme dropped its investigation into Savile, was enough to activate this clause.
The review, by Nick Pollard, a former head of Sky News, criticised Mr Entwistle and Helen Boaden, the broadcaster’s head of news, and led to the resignation of Stephen Mitchell, deputy director for news. Mr Mitchell was singled out for his “serious mistake” of removing the Savile investigation from an internal list of “controversial” programmes.
Lord Patten was cool on the BBC’s chances of success, however: “I rather doubt whether we will actually get the legal go-ahead for that. But we do have to look at that, and we have been looking at it,” he said.
The size of the settlement was criticised by both MPs and private sector recruiters, who said the BBC had been “cavalier” and “lax” with licence-fee money.
The Commons public accounts committee said the severance payment for Mr Entwistle was “out of line both with public expectations and what is considered acceptable elsewhere in the public sector”, in a highly critical report released on Thursday.
“Public servants should not be rewarded for failure,” the MPs wrote.
Employment specialists also criticised the deal, arguing that the BBC could have paid less if the terms of Mr Entwistle’s contract had been stricter. Katushka Giltsoff, a partner at Miles Partnership, an executive search firm, said: “The BBC has been lax.”
The private sector is “much, much tighter on these things, particularly in financial services,” said Ms Giltsoff.
Lord Patten defended the pay-off, arguing that it minimised costs by avoiding a lengthy legal battle with Mr Entwistle.
“You can’t say employment law should exist for everybody else except for people who work at the BBC,” he told the BBC’s Today programme on Thursday morning.
MPs also took aim at “excessive” pay-offs for other senior managers, including the £670,000 given to Caroline Thomson, the former chief operating officer, who left after she was beaten to the top job by Mr Entwistle. Lord Patten said the public accounts committee’s treatment of the BBC was “a bit shabby” and that it was unfair to not consider the legal argument.
The BBC has introduced tougher terms for redundancy payments which limit pay-offs to a total of one year’s salary, the broadcaster said. These take effect from January.