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British lawmakers grill BBC bosses over executive payoffs

Former BBC chief Mark Thompson said the payoffs saved money because they led to fewer managers on the payroll.

Associated Press

Former BBC chief Mark Thompson said the payoffs saved money because they led to fewer managers on the payroll.

LONDON — The former director of the BBC on Monday defended his tenure in front of lawmakers looking into oversized executive payoffs at the public broadcaster, insisting he had the support of other bosses when he approved the payments.

Mark Thompson, now chief executive of The New York Times Co., was testifying for the first time before Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee, which is investigating payoffs to outgoing BBC executives that exceeded contractual obligations, included a $1.6 million deal for his former deputy.

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Much of Monday’s session was dominated by arguments over who knew about the payments.

Thompson accused BBC Trust chairman Chris Patten of misleading lawmakers when he claimed he was not aware of the issue — an accusation Patten rejected. The BBC Trust is the broadcaster’s governing body, charged with protecting the public’s interest in the sprawling organization.

‘‘I believe I made sure that the BBC Trust was fully informed in advance about these settlements,’’ Thompson, who stepped down from the BBC last year, told lawmakers. ‘‘I don’t understand why those misleading statements were made.’’

Thompson also argued that the payoffs were ‘‘value for money’’ for the broadcaster in the long term because it now has fewer senior managers on its payroll.

In return, Patten, who also appeared Monday for questioning along with five other senior BBC figures, said he was not part of the decision and that he ‘‘couldn’t have been expected to know’’ about the sum.

When asked why Thompson had to pay almost $1.6 million to his former deputy, Mark Byford, when he was contractually due just half that, Thompson said it was so Byford could be ‘‘fully focused’’ in the final months of his job.

Frustrated by the testimony, the parliamentary committee’s chairwoman Margaret Hodge said the spat showed the BBC’s incompetence, adding that her witnesses appeared to be ‘‘running away a little bit from responsibility.’’

In July, the National Audit Office, the public spending watchdog, said the BBC had paid 25 million pounds in severance settlements to 150 senior staff, and in some cases gave more than their contracts called for.

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