The BBC is “hiding” the salaries of top presenters, MPs have claimed, as they prepare to warn corporation boss Tim Davie that the organisation must be “more open” about its talent wage bill.
The BBC director-general is in line for a “spicy session” giving evidence to the Commons digital, culture, media and sport (DCMS) select committee on Tuesday, sources close to it have warned.
MPs are braced to quiz him about the way the corporation discloses the pay of its top stars, amid allegations of “smoke and mirrors” tactics that disguise the true cost of its highest paid on-air staff.
The BBC publishes the official salaries of those earning more than £150,000 a year, but critics complain that the list omits payments made to stars through BBC Studios, the corporation’s commercial arm.
This year’s annual report, published in July, disclosed the names of 72 on-air figures receiving salaries above the threshold. However, the absence of Strictly Come Dancing presenters Claudia Winkleman, who also presents a Radio 2 show, and Tess Daly, as well as Top Gear presenter Andrew Flintoff, raised eyebrows.
Julian Knight, Tory chairman of the DCMS select committee, warned earlier this summer that there was “a concerning lack of transparency because a number of top-earning stars are paid through BBC Studios and their salaries don't appear” on the published list.
He said licence fee payers were “only getting half the picture on whether they are getting value for money” and called on the BBC to “drop the smoke and mirrors approach”.
Mr Davie launched a defence, telling a press conference in response that it was “absolutely appropriate” the commercial wing of the BBC did not disclose “all of its individual costs”.
MPs are poised to tackle him directly over the issue tomorrow, it is understood. One parliamentarian on the committee said of the unseen pay of stars remunerated via BBC Studios: “It [the BBC] has got to be more open about that. I don’t know it hides it.”
A range of other awkward topics are expected to arise at the session, including the views of new Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries, who in the past has called the BBC a “left-wing”, “patronising” and “hypocritical” organisation.
Fresh allegations about disgraced journalist Martin Bashir, and controversial BBC plans for a Love Island-style reality television show are also set to be raised.
The ‘worry’ about Jess Brammar
In addition, Mr Davie’s role in ensuring the political impartiality of the corporation will be scrutinised.
“He must make sure the BBC is demonstrably impartial and independent. It is after all a public-funded body,” said a second MP on the committee, who described the hiring of Jess Brammar as a “worry”.
Ms Brammar, a former editor at left-leaning news website Huffington Post, is set to become executive head of news at the BBC.
The confirmation of her appointment this week came in the wake of outcry that Sir Robbie Gibb, former No 10 communications director and now a BBC board member, had intervened in the process to warn that her recruitment would damage relations with the Government.
She has faced claims of political bias, after previously posting tweets perceived as critical of Brexit and Boris Johnson. They have since been deleted.
Mr Davie has insisted the BBC would be in "dangerous territory" if past political positions and tweets rendered anyone ineligible for a role at the corporation. Ms Brammar has said she is looking forward to “cracking on with the job”.
It is understood that licence fee evasion and trans issues will also be raised by members of the DCMS committee tomorrow.
A source close to the committee told The Telegraph: “It’s going to be a spicy session. There is a huge in-tray for the committee to deal with. We feel a sense of frustration with the BBC and the fact Tim Davie seems to be promising openness, transparency and disclosure but all we seem to see is more opaqueness and never-ending issues coming to us. Therefore, how true to his word is he? He’s had a relatively comfortable ride to this date, that stops on Tuesday."
He is due to give evidence to the select committee from 10am on Tuesday, alongside BBC chairman Richard Sharp and the corporation’s chief operating officer Leigh Tavaziva.
A BBC spokesman said: “BBC Studios is a commercial organisation, not underpinned by the licence fee, so competes for business with the BBC, other broadcasters and streaming services in the global marketplace – the Government therefore agreed that BBC Studios should be treated on a level playing field with independent production companies which, as commercial operations, are not required to disclose pay."