On the Today Programme on Radio 4 yesterday morning, Lord Patten defended the £450,000 payoff given to George Entwistle when he stood down as Director-General of the BBC in the wake of the Jimmy Savile story. He said they’d taken legal advice, and it would be less costly to the BBC and hence to the taxpayer than risking breaching the terms of Entwistle’s contract of employment. Under those terms, Patten said, Entwistle would have been able to claim unfair dismissal, breach of contract and more besides. The cost would have been far greater, he argued – and he said he was taken aback that he’d explained all this to Margaret Hodge and the Public Accounts Committee, and they’d still chosen to go public in attacking the payout.
Chris Patten wonders why people don’t follow his clear logic. I, in turn, wonder why he didn’t see something that ought to have been plain to him, legal advice notwithstanding.
And it’s this: can any of us really imagine a man in George Entwistle’s position pursuing greater compensation through the courts? He’d been forced to resign over a series of poor judgements over the Savile affair. Not all those poor decisions were made by him, but they were made on his watch, both as DG and in his former role as Head of Vision. He stood accused of either not knowing about key events and policy decisions, or of ignoring them, or of failing to look into them properly. Even if – as I suspect – to a large degree he’s been scapegoated, and the people most accountable for the debacle have so far remained in employment at the BBC, his position upon resignation was not a happy one – and it would have been far, far worse if he had then sued for a bigger payout.
As I say, can you imagine it? He would have been excoriated. The headlines would have been dreadful. He’d have been accused of putting personal gain ahead of the standing of the Corporation, while it was still seeking to repair the damage it had done itself. He’d be regarded in the same light as Fred Goodwin. (Yes, that bad.) He would have been very, very ill-advised even to consider it.
In short, there’s Chris Patten’s law and logic – and then there’s PR. And in this case, in my view, PR would have been right. A smaller payout would have saved the BBC and the BBC Trust a lot of embarrassment and damage.