Belfast Telegraph

The chair of BBC Trust... and story of power, wealth and influence

By Nelson McCausland

The British Broadcasting Corporation reports the news, but sometimes it also becomes the news. And that has certainly been the case with the current chair of the BBC Trust, Rona Fairhead, who took up her post last October.

Rona is not exactly a household name in Ulster, although she was a senior figure in Bombardier/Short Bros from 1991 and a director of the Laganside Corporation in Belfast from 1994 to 2000.

Today, however, she is chair of an organisation that reaches into almost every home in the land.

She works three days a week as chair of the BBC Trust and for that she receives £110,000 a year. Not bad for a part-time job.

Last year, she was also paid £513,000 by the beleaguered HSBC bank, the one you have been hearing about in the news, and that was for just 50 days' work.

That included £334,000 as the non-executive chairman of HSBC North America, £160,000 as the non-executive director of HSBC Holdings and £19,000 in expenses and other benefits. That works out at £10,000 a day.

She joined the board of HSBC in December 2004 and, according to the bank's website, she is a member of the "financial system vulnerabilities committee".

But she still has a number of free days and so she is also able to earn another £130,000 from PepsiCo for working up to 25 days a year. That brings her salary for the three jobs up to £574,000 a year.

Moreover, she wasn't exactly penniless when she arrived at the BBC Trust. From 2006 to 2013, she was chief executive of Financial Times Group and, according to a report in the Financial Times (August 30, 2014), her leaving package was estimated to be more than £1m in addition to stock options valued at more than £3m.

The newspaper stated that this contributed to a shareholder revolt at the annual general meeting of the parent company, Pearson plc, in April 2014.

The appointment of Rona Fairhead at the BBC was approved by MPs on September 9, 2014, but within hours it emerged that a lawsuit had been filed against her in a New York court on May 7, 2014.

The case is based on the fact that she was chair of the risk committee of the bank in 2012 when it was fined the equivalent of £1.2bn by the US authorities over a money-laundering scandal. It was alleged that the bank had allowed drug-traffickers to launder millions of pounds.

The shareholder who took the case wants the courts to force her and 88 other directors to repay the fines the bank incurred. According to the Daily Mail (September 10, 2014), he said: "Mrs Fairhead's credentials are great as long as you ignore what she's done at HSBC for the past 10 years."

Then, last month, the spotlight was back on Rona Fairhead when the BBC television programme Panorama revealed that employees at HSBC's Geneva branch had helped clients to set up "black accounts" and withdraw huge quantities of undocumented cash.

This revelation raised questions about what Rona Fairhead knew when she was chairwoman of the bank's risk committee, but as yet she has declined to answer those questions.

It has also been claimed by the journalist Peter Oborne that HSBC may be attempting to influence Press reporting by pulling advertisements from newspapers that publish negative stories about it.

Now the story of the chair of the BBC Trust has taken a further turn, as Rona Fairhead is to be questioned by MPs on the Public Accounts Committee at Westminster next Monday. She will appear alongside HSBC chief executive Stuart Gulliver - and that's one not to miss.

This is a fascinating story of wealth, power and influence with the chair of the BBC Trust right at the heart of a one of the biggest banks in the world and a bank that has been exposed by Panorama as being guilty of malpractice.

So where does that leave the BBC?

Nelson McCausland MLA is chair of the Assembly's culture, arts and leisure committee

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