BBC blew 100 million on digital project

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The BBC is being summoned before Parliament for a slap on the wrists. There is nothing MPs like better than having a pop at the national broadcaster but on this occasion the politicians seem justified in their complaints that the BBC has squandered licence-payers' money.

The issue is the BBC's much-publicised Digital Media Initiative (DMI), designed to digitise the BBC's massive archive of broadcast material. The ambitious scheme was abandoned in May after burning through £98.4 million. At a time of close scrutiny of public expenditure, the issue was gravely embarrassing for the BBC. Now MPs are suggesting that former director-general Mark Thompson misled Parliament about the progress of DMI.

At a meeting with MPs in February 2011, Thompson was upbeat, saying that DMI was "out in the business", that "many programmes were being made with DMI" and that it was used in BBC broadcasts. This was inaccurate, as the chair of the Public Accounts Committee Margaret Hodge pointed out. "The thing that really shook me is we were told there were bits of this system that were working," she told the BBC, "you were using and running programmes with them, and that wasn't true. That just wasn't true."

Thompson may be recalled from his new job in New York to explain himself. The BBC trustee Anthony Fry admitted DMI had been a "complete catastrophe". "It is extraordinarily worrying," Fry said. "At a personal level it is probably the most serious, embarrassing thing I have ever seen."

The latest problem comes during a time of crisis for the BBC, already facing potentially crippling damages claims from alleged victims of sexual abuse by BBC employees. Any payouts will also come out of the licence fee. The BBC may have to place greater reliance on its archive, digitised or not, as there may be no cash left for new shows.

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