LONDON (AFP) – New York Times boss Mark Thompson was hauled in front of the British parliament on Monday to explain to angry lawmakers why he approved a massive pay-off for his former deputy when he was head of the BBC.
Thompson was director-general of the taxpayer-funded British Broadcasting Corporation from 2004 to 2012, during which several executives were handed severance payments that went far beyond what their contracts stipulated.
Among the recipients were deputy director-general Mark Byford, who was paid almost ??1 million (1.2 million euros, $1.6 million) -- twice what he was entitled to.
Thompson insisted the payment was justified to ensure Byford remained "fully focused" on his work before he left, and said it was part of a wider package of reducing top staff which ultimately saved the BBC millions.
But during hostile questioning by members of parliament's powerful public accounts committee, Thompson was forced to deny that the BBC "lost the plot" under his management.
Committee chairwoman Margaret Hodge also snapped at the BBC's human resources director that she wanted "no more lies" about who knew what about the pay-offs.
BBC spending is closely scrutinised because of the way the corporation is funded and its central role in British life, and the payments have caused a political storm.
A row has also erupted at the top of the BBC, after Thompson accused the broadcaster's governing trust of misleading lawmakers about its involvement in the deals.
BBC Trust chairman Chris Patten, a former governor of Hong Kong, attended Monday's hearing alongside Thompson where he insisted the payments were agreed before his appointment.
"I'm in the position in which I'm accused of having misled the committee on something I didn't know and couldn't have been expected to know," Patten said.
Patten and Thompson were joined at the committee by five other past and present BBC executives, who also struggled to explain why such large pay-offs were warranted.
HR chief Lucy Adams, who announced last month she was quitting the BBC, came under particular fire for previously telling the committee she had not seen a note detailing Byford's pay-off -- and then admitting she helped write it.
The committee does not have the power to sanction any of the executives, but Monday's hearing will provide more fodder for the BBC's critics after a torrid year.
The corporation is still coping with the fall-out from revelations that one of its star presenters in the 1970s and 1980s, the late Jimmy Savile, was a prolific paedophile, and a scandal over the mis-reporting of another case of sex abuse which ultimately led to the departure of Thompson's successor.