BBC criticised over failed $170 million digital project

The BBC was yesterday slammed for botching a $170-million digital project in the latest of a series of reports, criticising top management for their running of the UK's publicly funded broadcaster.

According to public spending watchdog, the National Audit Office (NAO), BBC executives led by then director general Mark Thompson, who is now chief executive of New York Times Company, failed to realise in time that the Digital Media Initiative was in trouble.

Aimed at letting staff across the BBC create and share video and audio content on their desktops, the project was dropped in May last year as confidence in the scheme eroded due to technical problems and delays in the implementation.

The NAO found the BBC executive board led by Thompson had been over confident in its ability to handle the project even as it failed to get a "sufficient grip" over an 18-month period. Also the BBC Trust, chaired by Chris Patten, did not challenge it enough.

"If the BBC had better governance and reporting for the programme, it would have recognsed the difficulties much earlier than May 2012," NAO head Amyas Morse said in a statement.

The overall loss to the BBC on the project amounted to £98.4 million which was cancelled by the corporation's current director general, Tony Hall, a month after taking up the top job.

Thompson, who quit the broadcasting company in 2012 after eight years to join The New York Times Co, would be appearing before the British Parliament's public accounts committee on 3 February along with other past and present BBC executives to answer questions about the failed project.

According to a spokesman for Thompson he would not be commenting until then.

The NAO report comes in the wake of a series of controversies that hit confidence in the BBC, including criticism over large payments to departing executives, a child sex scandal involving ex-TV presenter Jimmy Savile, and workplace bullying.

According to Margaret Hodge, the Labour MP who chairs the Commons public accounts committee, the failures revealed in a National Audit Office report on the Digital Media Initiative (DMI) - which was scrapped last year with £98.4 million of licence-fee money written off - "go right to the top" of the corporation.

According to Hodge, the BBC executive board, led by former director general Thompson, "applied insufficient scrutiny" to the project during 2011 and the first half of 2012.

She added the corporation's governance body, the Lord Patten chaired the BBC Trust, had questioned executives about slippages in the DMI programme in September 2011, "but then applied limited challenge until July 2012".