If there is one thing to unify outrage across the political spectrum, it is the pay-outs which are often reportedly made to “failed” senior figures on departing their roles.
The most recent example is George Entwistle, who may go down in history as the shortest serving Director General of the BBC, having managed to stay in the role for only 54 days.
Mr Entwistle’s downfall began as controversy engulfed the BBC following some pretty nasty revelations about former presenter Jimmy Savile. The political establishment called for blood, and despite his short term in office and apparent lack of personal culpability for the situation, Mr Entwistle was at the top of the list to go, followed shortly afterwards by his prospects of appearing on the New Year’s Honours List any time soon.
Bowing to the inevitable, and having been informed that he no longer had the BBC’s confidence (usually a prelude to dismissal), Mr Entwistle offered to resign but only on the condition that he was paid in lieu of the 12 months’ notice he would have received if he had been formally dismissed (£450,000, instead of £225,000 for the six months’ notice he would be required to give on a voluntary resignation).
So what should the BBC have done? BBC Trustee Anthony Fry tried to explain the decision at the Public Accounts Committee last week. Working on the basis that leaving Mr Entwistle in post was not going to fly, there were two choices:
- Accept Mr Entwistle’s offer and pay him the full 12 months’ notice and some cosmetic frills (presumably signed off by a compromise agreement settling any further claims); or
- Dismiss Mr Entwistle, having first continued to pay him his salary during any disciplinary process and still pay him his full 12 months’ notice and face a claim of unfair dismissal given the unclear reason for the dismissal.
Mr Fry, with apparent reluctance and irritation, chose the former option. But is this a choice which is really so hard or outrageous as some of the commentary suggests?
It is difficult to see that it is. Faced with a contractual entitlement to 12 months’ notice if dismissed, the only option to the BBC to avoid the payment would have been to dismiss Mr Entwistle for gross misconduct. With no obvious grounds for such a dismissal, this would have just resulted in the added embarrassment and expense of its being sued for the full 12 months’ notice and potentially unfair dismissal also. One can imagine the press coverage as the BBC slowly digested itself live in Court. There is a price to avoiding such things and Mr Entwistle was entitled to ensure that the BBC paid it, whatever its entirely justifiable angst and public unease around someone else’s dreadful misconduct.
Whilst criticism could be in theory levelled at the BBC for paying a public servant £450,000 a year on a 12 month notice period in the first place (though Mr Entwistle’s predecessor was paid twice this), it is difficult to criticise the commercial decision to accept (or procure, which is clearly what it really was) Mr Entwistle’s resignation on those terms. The short point must be that Mr Entwistle is entitled to the same protection as everyone else, i.e. that of the notice period in his contract. Perhaps Public Account Committee Chair Margaret Hodge is right to say that the package shows “a lack of understanding of what the ordinary punter turning on the telly feels about it”, but that is of course legally totally irrelevant, as she must no doubt be aware. If the BBC really thought it could attract the right candidate with a lower salary or shorter notice period then no doubt it would have done so. But it did not, and in those circumstances Mr Entwistle is entitled to exactly what his contract says. The fact that this will appear a vast sum to the ordinary punter is of no consequence to this – almost everything seems like a vast sum to the ordinary punter, which is of course exactly why he is the ordinary punter in the first place.