The Public Accounts Committee of the House of Commons is annoyed that the BBC won't open its accounts to deeper public scrutiny. Apparently the Beeb has gone to some lengths to thwart the National Audit Office – the official scrutineer of the public finances – to prevent the publication of the salaries it pays to its top presenters.
In a BBC News interview on 11 May, Labour Peer Lord Foulkes turned on presenter Carrie Gracie, forcing her to reveal she was paid £92,000 a year – one-and-a-half times the salary of a Member of Parliament. But then she probably doesn't have a second home allowance. Or does she? I think we should be told. (For the record, I think Carrie Gracie is about six times more useful than the average MP, so she's actually pretty good value for money by government budget standards.)
The BBC is a public corporation, funded by £3,000m a year of taxpayers' money. Yes, we want to maintain its independence – though frankly, it would have far more independence if it was privatized and did not have to keep the politicians sweet by laying on all those 'public interest' broadcasts whose sole function is to allow politicians to preen themselves in front of the political junkies who watch this kind of stuff. But taxpayers have a right to know how public bodies are spending their money. That means all public bodies – Parliament, government departments, local authorities – and quangos.
If we're forced to pay taxes, we should at least have the right to know how they're spent. Who is paying how much of our cash to whom? It's a simple question. And the easy way to answer it is to post on the internet every cheque which government and public bodies issue. Then concerned citizens and the media can spot irregularities. MPs being paid for duck islands? Council bosses giving lucrative contracts to their in-laws? Quangos spending more on PR and offices than on their job? Online transparency should be a basic principle of public finance.