BusinessPeople In BusinessThe BBC awaits more audit scrutiny

The BBC awaits more audit scrutiny

What's in Auntie's book? With scrutiny from the National Audit Office seemingly inevitable, BBC CFO Zarin Patel could be about to face a grilling

The BBC is everybody’s favourite whipping boy (or should that be old girl?).
But it could be about to have its books completely opened for the first time to
full scrutiny by the National Audit Office (NAO). This will give MPs an
opportunity to crack the whip, but it is Zarin Patel, as chief financial
officer, who will have her numbers placed under the microscope.

What’s happened?

The BBC seems to be fighting defensive actions on several fronts at the
moment. It’s been on receiving end of sharp criticism for closing down services,
it is accused by other broadcasters of having an unfair place in the market
which is destroying competition and its executives were not long ago accused of
earning far too much money in these difficult times. And that’s not to mention
the storm of criticism caused by the sums paid to stars.

But the coming to power of a Lib-Con coalition government has brought more
attention. The final manifesto from the coalition says it will insist Auntie
opens is accounts to unfettered access by the NAO.

This is a highly controversial move among BBC stalwarts who have, in the
past, made the argument that letting in the NAO to make judgments about the
management of its income and the way it spends it will leave Auntie open to
influence from politicians. Don’t forget, the NAO works for Parliament and its
reports are essentially scrutiny undertaken by the powerful public accounts
committee in the House of Commons.

What happens next?

Since joining the BBC in 2004 as group FD, Patel should have become
accustomed to controversy. Various “savage” budget cuts and the current round of
retrenchment
have all propelled Auntie into the news and the CFO into the frontline of action
to change and develop the nation’s state broadcaster.

But the advent of an NAO audit could change her job significantly. Indeed, if
the audit goes ahead and MPs stage a hearing on the ensuing report (how could
they resist the publicity) Zarin could find herself alongside chief executive
Mark Thomson facing interrogation by parliamentarians.

This will be a new experience. The BBC attracts much attention but an
appearance before MPs, in the full glare of the media spotlight, will be a very
different and personal experience for Patel.

Having said that, she spent 15 years with KPMG and has plenty of private
sector experience. She told Accountancy Age in 2005 that she believed the
organisation’s annual report was as good as any plc’s.

At that time she also said: “This is a really critical point, and we are
trying to get [the message] across the organisation that we can’t carry on. An
organisation should transform itself once every ten years, not once every three
years.”

That was just five short years ago and, in many senses, the BBC is still in
transformation mode. An NAO inspection may bring about the next stage in that
process.

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