THE BBC is failing in so many ways that it is almost tragic.
On Monday, a letter from some 160 local and network presenters to director-general Tim Davie was published, asking the corporation to stop exposing them to unfair employment practices.
They are demanding that he resolves the ‘ongoing catastrophe’ of IR35, the rules introduced by the tax authorities in 2000 to prevent people who would ordinarily be viewed as employed from being taxed as if they were self-employed.
However, this plea comes not from the BBC’s highly-paid ‘talent’ – whose total salary bill in 2019/2020 rose by £1million to £144.6million, or from its executive committee, whose pay rose from £4.95million to £5.41million – but from the less glittering workhorses who find themselves owing tax due to the curious nature of their contracts.
Rather than directly employing its staff, the broadcaster pushed the use of personal service company (PSC) arrangements on them. Thus it could avoid paying employer rates of National Insurance, or sickness and maternity pay.
Its website currently declares that the use of PSCs is under review. But not quickly enough, it would seem for current staff, who write:
‘Recent revelations about the unethical conduct of Martin Bashir and Tony Hall have crystallised something for this group: BBC management’s dishonest conduct towards staff and cavalier attitude to the law and to MPs; its punishment of whistle blowers; the habit of BBC management to conceal its failures; its lack of moral courage and unwillingness to deal with problems of its own making – all of these help to explain the ongoing catastrophe of IR35.
‘In 2017 we presented Tony Hall (then BBC director-general) with a dossier demonstrating that the BBC’s IR35 policy and its unlawful handling of our tax affairs was causing despair and hardship. Some presenters were going to food banks or driving Ubers to make ends meet.
‘A committee was set up under Bob Shennan (managing director) to resolve these matters. Very little progress was made. In 2018 we took these matters to the DCMS (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) select committee of the House of Commons), which issued a strong condemnation of BBC management’s conduct. In meetings, Glyn Isherwood (chief financial officer) described this as ‘noise’.
‘We want you to admit this situation was the fault of managers and not presenters and set out a clear written plan to rectify the situation.’
The timing of the letter could not be much worse, with BBC management still mopping up the mess from Lord Dyson’s report into Martin Bashir’s 1995 Panorama interview with Princess Diana.
Home Secretary Priti Patel’s ‘strong reaction’ to that report included refusing to rule out the prospect of prosecutions. She told Sky News: ‘If there is subsequent action that needs to be taken, then clearly … that will follow.’
Ah, yes. That will be after she deals with people-smuggling, unlawful migrants, extraditions, digital passports, quarantine hotels, and working on her ‘overbearing’ managerial approach.
Meanwhile, Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden helpfully deflected attention from the BBC’s possible criminality, calling for ‘far-reaching’ changes to ensure the corporation placed a ‘new emphasis on accuracy, impartiality and diversity of opinion … in tune with all parts of the nation it serves’.
These are the same tired old phrases repeated every time the BBC gets caught out. They invariably lead to small cosmetic changes, more secure public funding, continued indifference to criticism, and barely concealed contempt for their subscribers.
But back to the workhorses. Using PSC is not a new BBC ploy: In late 2019, HMRC won an IR35 tribunal case at the High Court against three BBC presenters, David Eaves, Tim Wilcox and Joanna Gosling, who were all deemed to be employees and required to pay back £920,000 in taxes. The corporation had to repay £200,000 in outstanding employer NICs.
The court ruled that the staff had been forced into contracting through PSCs, arguing that there was an ‘imbalance of bargaining power’. Caught out again, the BBC promised to put its house in order, acknowledging it had more than 100 other presenters on similar contracts.
The corporation seems to stagger from one difficulty to another. It has not covered itself in glory during Covid-19, abandoning all pretence at journalistic impartiality according to its own guidelines.
It has permitted itself to be used as the propaganda arm of the Government and its agents, SAGE et al, offering nothing to counter the lockdown narrative, and silencing any dissent on the efficacy or morality of forced vaccination.
Its corporate decision-making is consistently poor, a symptom of a failing organisation. There was the move last year, blamed on the Finnish guest conductor Dalia Stasevska, to exclude Rule, Britannia! from the Proms on the grounds that it glorified colonialism and slavery.
During the Brexit referendum campaign, the BBC could not contain its ire. Commentator after commentator, news piece after news piece, warned of the disasters to come should old Right-wing xenophobes vote to leave the EU. We all know how that turned out.
The BBC still likes to see itself as the epitome of impartial journalism and public service broadcasting. But increasing numbers are losing faith in it as that image is dispelled by the stark reality of what it says and does.
Its ethos is no longer about its Charter obligation to act ‘in the public interest, serving all audiences through the provision of impartial, high-quality and distinctive output and services which inform, educate and entertain’. It is all about the ego of its elites.