BBC presenter tried to kill herself over controversial employment arrangements

Samuel Osborne

A BBC reporter tried to kill herself because of stress over the controversial way which she was employed by the broadcaster.

The anonymous presenter was among several TV and radio stars to give evidence at a parliamentary inquiry into the use of personal service companies (PSCs).

They said the BBC pressured them into setting up PSCs, which later left them with massive bills for unpaid tax.

Senior MP Damian Collins, the chair of the House of Commons Culture Committee, said the BBC had fallen “well below” the standards expected in its treatment of staff and said he would be demanding answers from director general Lord Hall.

The corporation meanwhile has announced a new independent dispute resolution process which might lead to the Corporation paying a share of historic bills which in some cases run into five or six figures.

DJ Liz Kershaw, radio presenter Kirsty Lang and financial journalist Paul Lewis gave evidence to the inquiry, by the House of Commons Culture Committee.

Lang, the presenter of Radio 4's Front Row, said she gave up a staff post when asked by the BBC to form a PSC, despite fears about losing rights to sick pay.

She said "all my worst fears came true" after her stepdaughter died and she found herself unable to get bereavement leave, and was then diagnosed with cancer and had to work through surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy treatment.

"I entered into this whole arrangement in good faith, I trusted the BBC, I was proud to be part of the BBC, and I feel like I have been hung out to dry," she said. "I feel betrayed, and I ask 'Where is the duty of care to me and my colleagues'?"

Kershaw meanwhile said she spent six months presenting her 6 Music show without payment after ceasing a PSC arrangement.

She said she was warned by her accountant that PSC status was doubtful, and it had offered no advantage to her. She suggested the BBC may have lied by informing her and other presenters that HMRC backed the arrangement.

"I think it's a tragedy that this mismanagement will lead to millions of pounds possibly being taken out of the coffers to rightfully compensate people who have been taken out of the pension scheme or gone through hell to the point where they have nearly taken their own life," Ms Kershaw told the committee.

She blamed the situation on a secretive and "oligarchical" management style under former director general Mark Thompson. She read out a series of emails and letters in which she was told that she must take on PSC status.

Lewis told the committee: "The BBC's point of view is that no-one was forced, but the evidence is that if you didn't do it, you didn't work."

He added: "At the same time the BBC makes savings through PSCs, there haven't been that many savings at the management level. There are a lot of very, very well-paid people in management and we don't think all of them are doing a very good job."

Ahead of the hearing, the committee released a dossier of evidence from presenters who claim the BBC put pressure on them to be employed via a PSC, rather than as a member of staff.

They later found themselves targeted by an HM Revenue & Customs clampdown on the arrangement.

The committee published letters and emails from the BBC to on-air talent including Kershaw, in which the Corporation made clear that it would offer long-term engagements only if their services were provided through a company or partnership.

One female radio presenter told the committee she was “forced” to set up a PSC in 2011 despite losing out financially as a result. When controversy over the arrangement blew up in 2017, she said she was forced to work on three-month contracts with “no sick pay, no holiday, no permanent contract” opposite a better-paid male staff member who enjoyed all these benefits.

“I have been paid too little due to the use of incorrect tax codes, been subject to clawback, received no information for months on end as to what I was going to live off,” she said. “My mental health deterioration is absolutely linked to the increased stress of working for the BBC.

“I have always loved working for the BBC but the way they have behaved has reduced me to more than tears. It’s one of the factors that three days ago took me into my loft where I tried to hang myself.”

Another presenter said she was given “no alternative” to setting up a PSC if she wanted to continue to be employed after maternity leave.

HMRC then ruled she was an employee of the BBC and hit her with a bill for tens of thousands of pounds in employer’s National Insurance Contributions.

“The way the BBC has employed me has meant I have lost out on a life-changing sum of money, but it is the emotional cost which is more concerning,” she said.

“Life-altering levels of stress” had affected her family, health and well-being, she said, adding: “Over many years I have been utterly let down, and mistreated by the corporation, treated like an alien species because I am a presenter. I am concerned that it has done irreparable damage to me.”

National TV and radio presenter Samira Ahmed said she felt “hugely bullied” over her employment status. BBC Radio Oxford presenter Charles Nove told the committee he was “constantly worried that I may face homelessness” because of the “unholy mess” around his pay.

Another unnamed presenter said: “My physical and mental health has suffered and the quality of life with my young family has been impacted. In the darkest of days and the spectre of retrospective action from HMRC hanging over me daily, I contemplated taking my own life.”

Others spoke of “constant anxiety”, “serious physical and mental illness” and “debilitating” stress.

The BBC saved around £10 million a year on National Insurance payments alone by paying presenters through personal companies, MPs were told.

Committee chair Damian Collins said the accounts were “highly disturbing”.

“By allegedly being coerced into these contracts these individuals may have been denied employment rights, and some face liability for huge tax bills,” he said.

“This evidence indicates that the BBC is falling well below the standards we would expect in terms of how it treats its staff.”

The BBC announced that the Centre for Effective Dispute Resolution (CEDR) will conduct an independent process under which presenters will be able to ask for a review of their cases.

The process will consider whether it is “appropriate or reasonable” for the BBC to make a contribution towards historic demands for employer’s National Insurance.

The Corporation said in a statement that it had “always tried to balance our responsibilities to presenters with our responsibility to spend the licence fee appropriately”.

And it added: “The BBC is aware that there is a very high hurdle where public money is concerned and the whole purpose of the work is to inform and advise, so we cannot prejudge the outcome.

“The process will only consider whether the BBC should contribute towards demands for employer’s National Insurance Contributions, not demands for other taxes which individuals are liable for.”

Additional reporting by PA