U.K. media scrutinizes BBC expenses

Freedom of information request reveals all

The BBC has become embroiled in a spat over expenses, published for the first time in response to freedom of information requests.

Newspapers, led by the Daily Mail, have accused toppers of leading a “champagne-style lifestyle” and lavishing expensive gifts on stars and entertaining themselves — all at the license fee payers’ expense.

The revelations come at a sensitive time for the BBC as it tries to persuade the government not to use 3.5% of its annual $5.8 billion license fee, paid by all households with a TV, to fund news on cash-strapped commercial webs.

The expense claims show that director-general Mark Thompson spent $3,643 flying his family back from a vacation in Sicily last fall to deal with the row over lewd phone calls made by Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand on a BBC radio show.

Four years earlier, he chartered a private jet to fly from Maine to Boston at a cost of $2,081 to return to London for an urgent meeting believed to be an internal probe into expenses claimed by BBC creative director Alan Yentob.

Other items include a $2,463 staff meal at the Mip sales mart in Cannes in 2008 claimed by then future media director Ashley Highfield and $2,096 for a meal claimed by BBC Worldwide topper John Smith.

Speaking about the revelations to the Times, Yentob, who once claimed $195 for a cake, said, “We don’t believe we have anything to hide on expenses, and we respond to a great deal of freedom-of-information requests.”

By entertainment industry standards, the claims appear to be modest overall. But following revelations of politicians’ excessive expenses that have led to a crisis for the government, the local media is likely to extract maximum value from the story.