Staff unhappy after top presenters taken to swish eatery against backdrop of job losses and row over George Entwistle payoff.
With the BBC facing flak over the director general George Entwistle’s payoff after he resigned over Newsnight’s bungled child sex abuse story, it might not have been the best time to take star news presenters including Fiona Bruce for an £800, licence fee-funded group bonding meal in Soho.
Mary Hockaday, head of the BBC newsroom, hosted the event on Monday night for about 20 key stars and staff at Vasco & Piero’s Pavilion, a restaurant that says it offers, “beautiful Umbrian cuisine in the heart of Soho”.
The dinner was held in the restaurant’s private room and is estimated to have cost about £800. The BBC said it had secured a reasonable group-booking rating for the restaurant, where main course prices range from £15.50 to £23.50, and that those attending were being asked to make a contribution.
Vasco & Piero’s Pavilion is a favourite with stars including Michael Palin and Kirsten Dunst and has won plaudits for its menu, which includes roast duck with Umbrian fennel pollen and spinach.
However, the timing of the BBC News dinner has been questioned by some corporation staff.
One said it was strange to hold such a “lavish dinner while the BBC is being so publicly castigated” over BBC News’ handling of Newsnight’s abandoned investigation into Jimmy Savile and the same programme’s botched 2 November report about alleged child abuse in north Wales – a broadcast that ultimately cost Entwistle his job.
Entwistle was paid £450,000 – a year’s salary, when the BBC was only contractually obliged to pay him six months’ notice – as part of a settlement that BBC Trust chairman, Lord Patten, was forced to defend once again before MPs on the Commons culture, media and sport select committee on Tuesday morning.
BBC News is also facing budget cuts and 140 post closures as part of the corporation’s Delivering Quality First cost-cutting strategy.
In March, Hockaday outlined the impact of DQF on the BBC newsroom in an email to staff which said: “It’s never easy making savings … But like everyone, we are expected to focus on what’s most important to our audiences and to continue to find ways to be as efficient as possible.”
A BBC insider said some of the lesser-known BBC News presenters who were not invited to the dinner were put out and added: “I thought BBC News was pleading poverty.”
A BBC spokeswoman said: “We occasionally get our presenters together so that we can all meet up in one place, build team relationships and discuss current issues and future plans. We are always mindful of keeping costs down so secured a reasonable group-booking rate. On this occasion, all those who attended are being asked to make a contribution to costs and are happy to do so.”