Do Government proposals for BBC governance threaten its independence? Raymond Snoddy takes soundings
There is no need to hire Nostradamus to predict what BBC governance will look like in the future. What had been the most likely outcome became a racing certainty after the publication of the Clementi report in March. It should be officially confirmed when culture secretary John Whittingdale publishes the white paper on the renewal of the BBC’s Royal Charter, due later this month.
As Sir David Clementi, the former Chair of Prudential, made clear in his consultation paper, there were only three possible models for future BBC governance and regulation.
One could persevere with the BBC Trust while reforming the body to reflect the experience of its 10 years of existence. Or a specially tailored regulator could be created just for the BBC – Ofbeeb. The third option would see full regulatory oversight of the BBC shift to Ofcom, a move that would be balanced by a heavyweight, unitary BBC board.
Clementi’s basic choice could hardly have been clearer – though serious practical and conceptual issues still need to be addressed and resolved.
"I don't think there is any reason for people to be too nervous about Ofcom being the BBC regulator"
In effect, the report marked the death knell of the BBC Trust: it argued that regulatory oversight of the BBC should pass wholly to Ofcom and that the BBC should have a unitary board, with a majority of its directors being non-executive.
The primary responsibility for protecting the interests of the licence-fee payers should lie with the BBC board.
Clementi decided that the Trust model was flawed because it conflated governance and regulation. Even if reformed, it would still leave two boards within one organisation, leading to confused responsibilities.
He rejected an Ofbeeb because the history of single regulators for one organisation had not been good.
Whittingdale welcomed Clementi’s work. Perhaps not untypically, he then added a rather incendiary comment. He said he envisaged that only two or three members of a 13-strong unitary board would be BBC employees. All the non-executives would be appointed by the government – something that Clementi pointedly did not recommend.
Rona Fairhead, Chair of the BBC Trust, says: “It seems clear that the move is towards a unitary board, which is what we argued for, and a strong regulator with bespoke powers, which is what we asked for, and it looks as if that will be Ofcom.”
She emphasises, however, the need for clarity about the lines of accountability in future governance arrangements. Moreover, relationships need to be based on trust and respect.
“You need to ensure that audiences are properly represented and that governance is, and is seen to be, independent of vested interests and government, and that it works in a transparent regulatory framework,” says Fairhead.
Richard Tait, a former senior member of the BBC Trust, believes that Clementi’s report in its entirety represents a reasonable compromise.
“I have argued in the past that it might be better to have a separate, bespoke regulator, but I know a lost cause when I see one,” concedes Tait.
“Ofcom has shown itself to be a good regulator. If it staffs up with the right people, I don’t think there is any reason for people to be too nervous about it being the BBC regulator,” he adds.
Phil Harding, a former senior BBC executive, believes that, overall, a unitary board makes sense. Regulation by Ofcom is “fine” – although he, too, would have preferred an independent regulator.
“What I am concerned about [if the Government accepts Clementi] is: who will safeguard the public interest? Ofcom is obviously going to do a job of regulation in dealing with complaints, but is Ofcom really the right body to decide what the BBC should be doing in the public interest?” he asks.
It would be difficult for BBC non-executive directors to look after the public interest, because they would be the ones drawing up the plans and, therefore, would be “too close to the action”, argues Harding.
The Ofcom solution to BBC regulation faces at least one practical drawback – the inevitable and considerable increase in its workload.
Ofcom Chief Executive Sharon White points out that the BBC has to deal with around 350,000 complaints a year, compared with the 25,000 that Ofcom receives concerning the UK’s other broadcasters.
Clementi made it clear, however, that editorial complaints should, initially, go to the BBC in a “broadcaster-first” policy. Only appeals against BBC adjudications should go to Ofcom.
Despite that, Colette Bowe, the former Chair of Ofcom, is concerned that the extra workload might unbalance Ofcom. On top of its increased regulatory responsibilities, there would be the work involved in contributing to the debate over what the BBC should be.
“I thought that there should be a second body, but I have come off that idea. I think the unitary board is going to have to do it and Ofcom will have to do its job,” argues Bowe. “But let’s be clear: regulation is not governance and the governance of the BBC is going to have to be massively strengthened.”
The biggest outstanding controversy is over who appoints the non-executives to the new, all-powerful unitary board.
"Ministers want their own followers [one public bodies] - how are they going to resist that on the BBC?"
In contrast to the Whittingdale approach, Clementi advocated that the BBC should be able to appoint non- executives, apart from those representing the nations and English regions.
As in the past, they would initially be chosen by a committee made up of a civil servant from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, an independent assessor and the BBC Chair.
Recommended names would then go to ministers. If the government of the day wished to appoint the Chair and Deputy Chair, the Commissioner for Public Appointments should be involved in selecting candidates.
The controversy was intensified recently, when the outgoing Commissioner for Public Appointments, Sir David Normington, alleged that Government ministers had increased their efforts to have Conservative sympathisers appointed to public bodies since the general election.
Sir Michael Lyons, former Chair of the BBC Trust, accepts that if the Government merely oversees the process, then that is not very different from what has happened previously.
“However, we now have enough from David Normington to know that this is a government that you simply cannot trust with even that process. Ministers want their own followers [on public bodies] – how are they going to resist that on the BBC?” asks Lyons.
Harding, who believes that BBC non-executives should not be part of the public-appointments process, often works abroad with broadcasters in developing countries, where he emphasises the difference between state and public broadcasting.
“If we end up with a BBC in which the non-executives are appointed by the government, I do not know how I can go abroad and say the BBC is a public broadcasting organisation,” he says. “They could look at me and say: ‘No, it’s a state broadcaster.’”
Tait, a former Editor-in-Chief of ITN, says he is nervous about the new BBC board being too influenced by political appointments. “It was catastrophic for the BBC in the Thatcher years, when there were too many governors of a similar view,” he warns.
Bowe has a different perspective. She argues that Ofcom directors are all appointed by government and no one suggests that Ofcom doesn’t act in the public interest.
“I was appointed by a Labour Government to chair Ofcom and I don’t think anyone commented once on who appointed me or what my politics were,” she says. “The idea that, if you are appointed by the government, you lose your independence is not right,” she insists. “You have to judge people by what they do.”