Labour MP Margaret Hodge yesterday branded Rona Fairhead (pictured), head of the BBC Trust and HSBC board member as “incredibly naïve or totally incompetent”, at a Commons public affairs committee. Fairhead faced questioning by committee chair Hodge, and other MPs, over her position at HSBC following allegations of tax avoidance by the corporation’s Swiss bank.
Ex-head of the Financial Times Group, Fairhead became the first woman to chair the BBC Trust when she joined last year. She is currently on the board of HSBC Holdings and PepsiCo and is non-executive chairman of HSBC Northern America Holdings. She is also a UK Trade and Investment Business Ambassador. When her role at the BBC Trust was announced in August last year, Culture Secretary Sajid Javid commented that “”Her experience of working with huge multinational corporations will undoubtedly be a real asset at the BBC Trust.”
Hodge preceded to advise Fairhead to consider her position at the Trust, and called on the government to sack her if she opts to continue her role at the BBC. Fairhead denied any knowledge of the Swiss tax scandal, saying she was “horrified” when news of the tax evasion broke. Fairhead was paid £513,000 in fees and benefits last year, according to HSBC’s annual report, and has an annual salary of £110,000 at the BBC.
Evading responsibility at the public affairs committee, Fairhead instead shifted blame elsewhere: ““I think that first and foremost the people who are most culpable are those people who evade taxes.” She also said that blame lay with the bank’s frontline staff.
The BBC Trust is the governing body of the BBC and exists to make sure the BBC delivers its mission to ‘inform, educate and entertain.’ Consisting of 12 Trustees, the body is the guardian of the licence fee revenue and of the public interest in the BBC. Hodge no doubt spoke for a large proportion of BBC license fee payers when she said to Fairhead, “The performance you have shown here as a guardian of HSBC does not give me confidence as a licence fee-payer in your ability as a guardian of the licence fee-payers’ money and I think you should consider your position and resign. I’m afraid you’ve lost my trust.”
Fairhead has previously said of her position with the public service broadcaster: “I can’t think of many more important organisations to work for than the BBC. It remains one of the great British institutions, respected around the world and much loved at home.” Staying on at the Trust, however, will lead many to question the respectability of the BBC.