STEPHEN GLOVER: BBC bosses should cut their own salaries

STEPHEN GLOVER: What an appalling betrayal! BBC bosses should cut their own salaries – and not force the old to pay for their TV licences

No one should doubt that the BBC has decided to deprive nearly four million pensioner households of a free TV licence only after much agonising.

 Of course, it has not been an easy choice.

To a large extent, Auntie was dropped in the soup by then Chancellor George Osborne when he said in 2015 that the government subsidy to the over-75s would be phased out by 2020 and the cost borne by the Corporation.

BBC bosses have announced they are scrapping the free licence fee for pensioners

That decision represented a terrible shock to the Beeb’s finances. Either our national broadcaster would have to absorb the costs of maintaining free TV licences for the elderly, which would necessitate draconian cuts across the board. Or it would get rid of the subsidy and weather the inevitable public outcry.

In the event, it has decided to bear around a third of the cost in terms of economies — about £250 million a year — and claw back the rest by requiring all but the poorest pensioners to start paying £154.50 a year for a TV licence.

One can understand the BBC’s predicament. All the same, I believe it has made a fatal decision that will damage its reputation and serve to undermine its standing as a public service broadcaster with widespread support.

The Beeb’s bosses are living in a different universe to the rest of us if they believe that they can take away a perk of 20 years’ standing from the great majority of older pensioners while continuing to pay presenter Gary Lineker £1.75 million a year.

And it’s not just Mr Lineker. Despite some recent modest reductions, a number of BBC stars are paid in the region of £500,000 a year: Graham Norton, Nicky Campbell, Jeremy Vine, Huw Edwards and Alan Shearer, to name a few.

With a salary of £1.75million a year, Gary Lineker is the BBC’s highest paid presenter

The BBC management long resisted making public these gigantic salaries on the grounds that, once rival broadcasters knew what BBC ‘talent’ was being paid, they would try to poach them. Needless to say, this has scarcely happened. And even though Chris Evans left Radio 2’s breakfast show, there was hardly any effect, with his replacement, Zoe Ball, keeping its nine million listeners.

Are BBC chairman Sir David Clementi and director-general Tony Hall so out of touch that they believe the public will tolerate them paying such huge amounts while penalising hard-pressed pensioners for whom TV is a major solace?

For while it is true that, from next June, over-75s will still be eligible for a free licence if they claim a pension credit, this exemption will apply only to a small proportion of pensioners. The great majority, including many justly described as poor, will have to pay up.

Perhaps this might be seen as unavoidable if there was any proof that the BBC was making significant economies, as it claims to be doing. But there isn’t. If anything, the trend is in the other direction.

Auntie continues to reward its senior managers whopping pay increases unmatched throughout most of the public sector. For example, the salary of the BBC’s so-called director of nations and regions, Ken MacQuarrie (what exactly does he do?), was recently increased from £250,000 to £325,000.

Director of content Charlotte Moore’s salary rose from £325,000 to £370,000 — a 13.8 per cent increase when the average annual pay rise in the UK is around 3 per cent. James Purnell, the former Labour culture secretary who is now director of radio and education, received a £20,000 rise to £315,000 a year.

Other BBC fat cats include chief spin doctor John Shield, whose pay went up £25,000 to £220,000, and Peter Raynard, the head of the commercial legal department, whose salary increased 15 per cent to £180,000.

Writing about the BBC on and off for more than two decades, I have heard innumerable times how Auntie is at long last cutting her cloth according to her means. And yet, again and again, evidence emerges that the opposite is the case. How on earth can these huge increases be justified at such a time?

Graham Norton also takes home a fortune for his BBC TV chat show

It’s not just management and talent salaries, of course. Although some programmes have certainly suffered cutbacks, money continues to be thrown at others. The National Audit Office recently revealed that the Beeb’s project to build a new Albert Square for the soap EastEnders (what’s wrong with the present one?) was wildly overbudget.

The original 2015 forecast for the scheme was £59.7 million, but the revised budget is £86.7 million and will doubtless rise further. The new set, originally due to open last year, now won’t be ready until 2023.

There are countless other reports of wasted money: £12.5 million written off when BBC Store (a video on-demand service) was closed; £200,000 spent in three years on trains, taxis and hotel bookings that were never used; and, admittedly some time ago, £100 million blown on a bungled media and digital project.

It’s no surprise that, in 2015, less than half of Auntie’s annual budget — £2.4 billion out of £5.1 billion — was spent on ‘public service content’. The rest went on management, administration and keeping the vast behemoth on the road. I’m sure little has changed.

If the Beeb were not still paying enormous salaries to its stars and senior managers, and if there were signs it really was trying to economise, then more pensioners might understand why their treasured benefit is being snatched away. As it is, if they don’t pay for their TV licences, they now face being thrown in jail by famously heartless enforcers.

Charities say elderly people suffering from dementia and other health problems will be particularly at risk because they may be physically unable to pay for a licence, despite having the money to do so.

They also raise fears that elderly women are unfairly targeted by licence fee enforcers, following years of evidence that more women are jailed after failing to pay their TV licence than men.

Believe it or not, yesterday the Corporation’s management had the gall to say that ‘fairness’ is at the heart of the new system. They must have a very odd idea of fairness at the BBC!

Of course, I appreciate that the Corporation was put in a very difficult position by George Osborne. He essentially made a money-grab from the BBC and shifted a responsibility on to it — the provision of free TV licences for the over-75s — which should properly remain the business of Government.

There’s no doubt that Tony Hall and the then-chairman, Rona Fairhead, were far too accommodating in accepting this onerous settlement as they were worried that, if they did not do so, the very long-term future of the BBC might be put in jeopardy.

Rather than accepting the agreement that has led to yesterday’s appalling announcement, they should have threatened their resignations. Osborne and others in Government were reportedly surprised that the Beeb’s management caved in so quickly.

But that is now all history. Today, the BBC will be justly accused of betraying vulnerable members of society, while showing scant evidence that it is putting its own house in order. The price it is bound to pay will be a reduction in the public’s trust and affection.

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