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Hugh Muir's sketch: But what about iPlayer?
[February 04, 2014]

Hugh Muir's sketch: But what about iPlayer?

(Guardian (UK) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Perilous questions for Mark Thompson, former director general of the BBC, before the public accounts committee, but the most intriguing was never posited: how many lives can he have left? If it isn't the Jimmy Savile affair - what he knew and when he knew it - it is another controversy: the mammoth executive compensation signed off during his reign at the BBC. Both messy, neither fully explained. That's two of those lives pretty much in the balance.

But Margaret Hodge and her committee accosted him about a third life hanging by a thread - the fiasco over the BBC's digital media initiative. Seven years in development, it was shut down last May with a wave goodbye to pounds 98m of taxpayers' money.

Someone has to pay for that sort of calamity, and not the least of society's punishments these days is a public humiliation before Hodge and her committee. Thompson flew in to observe the ritual, bringing with him other officials bearing varying levels of culpability. Of the five who sat before the committee, four have, like him, left the BBC. This was a rotten reunion.

The public excoriation that followed seems to be established practice for Hodge's committee. It limbered up by putting its hands on the shoulders of John Linwood, who was chief technology officer, and shaking him violently. Linwood was sacked over the failure of DMI and is suing the BBC, claiming that those failures have been exaggerated. But the committee inflicted its punishment on him, accusing him of exaggerating the progress of his scheme. Deputy chairman Richard Bacon accused him of ducking key meetings as the project unravelled so he could cite his absence.

Thompson, Anthony Fry, former chair of the BBC Trust finance committee, Zarin Patel, the former chief financial officer, and Caroline Thomson, the former chief operating officer, sat behind waiting their turn, faces bloodless. Thompson fidgeted, blew out his cheeks, licked his lips, scanned papers. He came armed with an apology for the expensive mess. It wasn't his fault. But he was sorry. And he probably misled the committee in 2011 when he told them everything was hunky-dory with DMI. He was sorry about that, too.

Thomson was sorry about the way things turned out, but not sorry enough to accept the prompting from Hodge that she might hand back at least some of the pounds 680,000 severance payment she received on being made redundant, or the pounds 2m pension pot. That was her entitlement, she said.

None of the apologies cut much ice. The exchanges fizzed with hostility. "We are getting a whole load of half truths," said Hodge menacingly. We have been misled, she told Thompson. "I don't believe I have misled you," answered Thompson. He merely gave information that turned out to be not at all right. It wasn't all bad, said Thompson. What about iPlayer? I don't want to talk about iPlayer, snapped Hodge.

It was a disaster, the BBC types conceded. But not the kind of disaster easily discerned before implosion and not one that can be easily explained. It looked good on paper and for a while looked good in practice, though the initiative seems to have had a direct impact on the production of only one programme. It was called Bang Goes the Theory.

(c) 2014 Guardian Newspapers Limited.

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