SEXUAL abuse by famous presenters, bullying by managers – can things get any worse for the BBC? Er, yes. The Eye learns that the corporation’s religion and ethics department is now having its own ethics scrutinised: Lord Patten has asked the BBC investigations unit to look into “serious concerns” about the commissioning process for dear old Songs of Praise.
This follows a formal complaint against David Taviner, the series editor, and Tommy Nagra, executive producer of SOP and head of TV religion and ethics. Patten has advised the unit that “if on investigation there is any suggestion that a criminal offence has been committed, the matter should be referred to the police”.
The saga began on 10 September last year when an advert on the BBC’s commissioning website invited Welsh independent TV production companies to tender for the job of making three episodes of the show, to be transmitted in August 2013, November 2013 and February 2014. Three companies pitched for the job.
The following month, on 2 October, one of those companies – Avanti Media – entertained David Taviner as its guest at the Classical Brit Awards ceremony in the Royal Albert Hall, and afterwards at a party in a London nightclub.
A month after that, shortly before the commissioning window closed, the brief suddenly changed, making it acceptable to submit proposals for transmission dates other than those originally set. The update was “based on questions we’ve received so far” – though the BBC didn’t divulge what those questions were nor who had asked them. But it seems they did not come from Avanti’s two rival bidders. Neither of those companies – believed to be Green Bay (Cardiff) and the North Wales-based Meditel – was entirely surprised to hear from Taviner in January that the contract had gone to Avanti, whose hospitality he had enjoyed during the tendering process.
The BBC’s anti-bribery policy states that it is unacceptable to receive gifts if there could be “an expectation that a business advantage will be provided by us [BBC] in return”. Whether or not Avanti expected an advantage from its generosity to Taviner, the outcome makes his night out with the company look very ill-advised.
“We can confirm,” a BBC spokesperson told the Eye, “that David Taviner did attend the Classical Brit Awards under the invitation of Avanti Media and that this was sanctioned at the time by his line manager [Tommy Nagra]. However, the final decision of which company to award the shows to was the sole responsibility of [the] head of BBC religion and ethics… Aaqil Ahmed.”
So that’s all right then. Maybe the winning bid was simply the cheapest: Avanti is certainly sparing every expense for its three Songs of Praise episodes, all of which were due to be recorded over two days this week in Llandaff Cathedral.
Members of the choir discovered last month that the company would pay them just £55 a day to perform – barely a quarter of the daily rate of £214 for church singing agreed between the BBC and Equity. This prompted more embarrassment for the BBC in the national press, with choristers denouncing the fee as “pretty insulting”.