Having tried for months to hide the details of their own expenses from the public gaze, MPs are now getting uppity about the amounts that the "talent" at the BBC take home, and worse still that the BBC tries to keep the details confidential.
The Public Accounts Committee has complained that the National Audit Office was not given access to individual salaries because it would not sign a non-disclosure agreement. The BBC Trust said that was because it had "legal obligations to staff" to protect the details. In February, the NAO reported that BBC stars were paid more than commercial stations and that about three quarters of budgets for breakfast and drive-time shows were spent on presenters.
Edward Leigh MP accused the BBC of fighting "again and again" not to disclose the salaries of its radio presenters, and said the public should have at least "an idea" of what they earnt.
"It is disgraceful that the NAO's lack of statutory audit access to the BBC puts the corporation in the position to dictate what the spending watchdog can and cannot see. The reason why they give this excuse is because they have fought again and again to prevent parliament, the National Audit Office, and the Public Accounts Committee getting full statutory access to the BBC which is wholly owned by the public," he said. "Because we don't have statutory access they can then plead data protection. If we investigated the BBC like every other government department then data protection would not apply".
You only have to look at the excuses put out by the BBC to see he has a point:
- Staff employment agreements are subject to confidentiality agreements. I have never seen a properly drawn up confidentiality agreement that didn't provide for disclosure to government agencies, as and when required. In the case of the BBC, all employment contracts could and should provide for review by the NAO.
- Full transparency would lead to demands for higher pay. Not so. The MPs' expenses scandal shows that when the public sees how much public sector workers are paid, they will press for the amounts to be reduced. Indeed if the stars really believed transparency would lead to higher pay, why would they be so keen to have the figures kept confidential?
- The Corporation's governing body, the BBC Trust, says staff have a right to privacy under the Data Protection Act, balanced against the public's right to know how public money is spent. BBC staff are to all intents and purposes paid out of the public purse, albeit through a hypothecated annual duty levied on the use of television sets. Other public sector workers accept that their pay is subject to public scrutiny and publication.
- If their pay was disclosed it would be easier for stars to be poached by commercial channels. Commercial channels pay less than the BBC so that is hardly likely. It is more likely that other performers would undercut the BBC's "stars" by offering to do the same work for less money.