The BBC’s director general yesterday warned staff they risk giving the “misleading impression” they are not impartial if they strike during the Conservative Party conference.
Journalists, technicians and other broadcast staff voted to strike on October 5 to 6 – when the Tories are gathered in Birmingham, where Prime Minister David Cameron is making a keynote speech.
Mark Thompson told a staff pension forum the public should get “undisrupted high quality services”.
He also tried again to ward off the threat of strike action by confirming that he and other members of the executive board would give up considerable pension top-up contributions.
For Thompson that will mean a reduction of around £160,000 to his pay packet which last year stood at £838,000.
BBC management and the unions will meet again this morning before staff meet union representatives later for a definitive answer on strike action.
Thompson said yesterday: “Impartiality is the watch word and we do not want to give the misleading impression that this is no longer something we value highly. To be clear this is not a comment on the principle of strike action.
“There are two questions I’d urge staff to think about: is this the right moment to strike, are these the right days? These are questions for individual staff to consider in the coming days.”
The action, announced by Bectu, the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) and Unite, is planned to resume on October 19/20 when Chancellor George Osborne is to unveil details of spending cuts.
Thompson also referred to a letter signed by some of the BBC’s most prominent presenters and others working in its political journalism unit warning against the timing of the strikes.
The letter, signed by Jeremy Paxman and Nick Robinson among others, said the move “risks looking unduly partisan”.
Revelation of the letter yesterday brought a response from NUJ general secretary Jeremy Dear in which he outlined the union’s rationale for selecting strike dates in their dispute with BBC management over pensions.
He said: ‘Quite rightly, the focus of staff anger at the BBC remains the proposal to undermine people’s pensions, earned through hard work over many years.
‘These damaging proposals mean staff will pay significantly more for worse benefits or face a cap on pensionable pay of one per cent.
‘When NUJ members were asked for their views on these plans, 97 per cent of them voted to take industrial action if an agreed settlement could not be reached.
‘Strike action is always a last resort. NUJ members are responsible individuals and do not take such decisions lightly. Our position has always been that we wish to negotiate in a mature way to resolve the BBC’s deficit at the appropriate time.
‘However, despite our best efforts, the BBC has repeatedly rejected this position and left members with no choice but to take action to defend their pensions from attack.
‘Strike dates were set by joint union reps from across the BBC, representing the views of thousands of members.
‘Since these dates were fixed, officials have held meetings at all major BBC sites. Hundreds of members have attended and endorsed the decision to take action on 5th, 6th and 19th and 20th October if the BBC was not prepared to properly address their concerns.
‘The selection of specific dates was not a political act. The dates were chosen by elected reps because they are major broadcast events and for no other reason.
‘Tomorrow elected reps will meet again in London to agree next steps. The issue of strike dates will be openly debated at this meeting and a democratic agreement reached.
‘Finally, we remain committed to reaching a negotiated settlement with the BBC and know that members will support us, through strike action if necessary, in doing this.”
The strike call came after a BBC announcement of plans to cap pensionable pay at one per cent from next April and revalue pensions at a lower level, which unions said effectively devalued pensions already earned.
BBC management said the changes were needed to try to tackle a huge pension deficit of more than £1.5 billion.
Last month, Conservative Party chairman Baroness Warsi wrote to Thompson asking for reassurances that the planned strikes would not breach impartiality rules by blacking out the conference.