Is this the end for the BBC Trust?
Categories: Latest News
Tuesday March 03 2015
The committee’s report argues the BBC Trust is not impartial and calls for greater inspection of the public service broadcaster to be monitored by a newly established Public Service Broadcasting Commission with “unrestricted access” and Ofcom designated as overall regulator. Among powers available to the Commission would be the ability to “fine” the BBC (“withhold funding”) as a final sanction, something which does not currently happen.
The Committee calls for the replacement of the Trust with a single unitary Board served by a non-Executive chair on which the Director General of the BBC and other executive and non-executive directors sit.
The Committee also calls for the established Public Service Broadcasting Commission to possess “as an ultimate sanction…a backstop power where it could recommend withholding some funding from the BBC in cases where there was a persistent disregard for the views of licence fee (broadcasting levy) payers as represented through PSBC recommendations on BBC services and activities.”
Following criticism of the way in which the current director general of the BBC, Tony Hall, was selected, and the subsequent appointment of some of his senior executives, all appointments to the BBC must be “fair and transparent” according to the committee report. Additionally, MPs have recommended giving unrestricted access to the National Audit Office, the government auditor, to monitor the BBC’s financial accounts –a measure that the corporation has resisted for years.
Diversity remains a high priority after the BBC pledged last summer to increase the number of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic people on air by more than 40% over the next three years. The committee stated “we believe it is crucial for the BBC and other broadcasters to broaden the range of voices and backgrounds at commissioning level as well as on screen.”
The way in which TV licence payment is enforced was deemed “out of proportion” in the report, but members of the committee could not settle on an alternative. Conservative MP Philip Davies was the only committee member to support a full subscription model. He said: “The BBC keeps telling us that the licence fee represents fantastic value for money and so if it does they’ve got nothing to fear from it going to a subscription model.”
The report raised the option of “moving to a German-style broadcasting levy,” whereby every household pays a levy towards broadcasters. It also supported calls by local media, that part of the licence fee (or broadcasting levy), should be used to fund non-BBC public service broadcasting, including local news and children’s programming. “I am worried about the parlous state of local newspapers which is quite dangerous for local democracy. We should consider using part of the proceeds of the licence fee to support local newspapers directly,” said Chairman of the committee, John Whittingdale.
Negotiations for the next BBC charter renewal have been planned for after the May 2015 general election, leaving only 18 months before the current charter ends in December 2016. The committee also asked the government to set up an independent review panel before the election. However, if time is lacking the committee suggested finding an interim body until the current charter expires at the end of next year stating “the future of the BBC is too important to rush.”
Committee chairman, John Whittingdale told the Guardian “the BBC Trust has failed to meet expectations and should be abolished. It remains far too close to the BBC and blurs accountability of the BBC rather than it being a sharp and effective overseer of the BBC’s performance as a public service institution.”
“An organisation of the size and cost of the BBC must be subject to the most rigorous independent scrutiny. A single BBC Board would be fully and transparently accountable for its governance and spending. We recommend the establishment of a new Public Service Broadcasting Commission with wide powers to scrutinise the BBC’s strategic plan, assessing the BBC’s overall performance, and determining the level of public funding allocated to the BBC and to others,” Whittingdale added.
There have been a number of controversies surrounding the BBC’s conduct and the mishandling of crises by the BBC Trust, including the Jimmy Savile inquiry, the wrongful naming of the late Lord McAlpine as an alleged paedophile in an edition of BBC Newsnight, and decisions by the BBC Trust on airing the Disaster Emergency Committee appeals on Gaza.
The select committee’s finding on the BBC Trust not being impartial will strike a chord with many who have escalated their complaints about the BBC’s coverage of the Israel-Palestine issue beyond the Editorial Complaints Unit and up to the BBC Trust.
In 2009, the BBC Trust defended the decision of then Director General, Mark Thompson, not to air the DEC appeal on Gaza saying it would not seek to overrule him. The BBC Trust reported in its ‘Decision of the BBC Trust’ document on the appeal that, “the BBC Executive had received about 40,000 complaints.” It is noteworthy that the BBC did not repeat its mistake in 2014 when it agreed to broadcast the DEC appeal.
The Trust also reviewed the decision to invite the leader of the BNP, Nick Griffin, onto a Newsnight panel in 2009.
The select committee throws its weight behind a recommendation advanced by the Lords Communications Committee in 2011, that Ofcom take over the duty of regulating the BBC’s output against criteria on ‘impartiality and accuracy’.
The Lords Communications Committee noted in its report on ‘The governance and regulation of the BBC’:
“We recommend that the BBC Trust and Ofcom work together to resolve the regulation of impartiality and accuracy so that the BBC is no longer its own judge and jury in these matters.”
The Culture, Media and Sport select committee affirms the recommendation stating, “We recommend that Ofcom become the final arbiter of complaints over BBC content including matters concerning impartiality and accuracy, but that complaints should be considered by the BBC in the first instance. Ofcom should be given additional resources for taking on this role which are commensurate with the responsibility and estimated workload. We believe this transfer of responsibility will, if anything, strengthen the independence of the BBC, and also make the complaints process simpler, and appear more transparent and fair.”