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  1  
ThE MaStEr

Audit of BBC risks political interference by stealthA stitch-up in which the BBC is constrained and its commercial rivals given free rein would be an outrage


Did anyone notice Don Foster using the BBC World Service as an example of how giving the National Audit Office full access to BBC accounts should not hurt editorial independence? Yes, that's the same World Service that could face the axe, according to a leak just two days after the Liberal Democrat culture spokesman's comments to the Guardian. Doesn't bode well for the BBC, does it?

There's been little dissent over plans to give the NAO's value-for-money merchants greater power to investigate how the BBC spends licence fee payers' cash. The BBC Trust, whose chairman, Sir Michael Lyons, has just announced he's had enough, certainly agrees with it. BBC management simply shrugged that they are typically subjected to two significant spending reviews by the NAO a year.

In principle, they're right. Greater transparency and accountability is always a good thing, especially for an organisation so much in the firing line over its spending. Yet there are two very real dangers in this move. The first is the threat to editorial independence. Giving a separate body that reports to parliament the right to crawl all over its accounts and staff contracts does not scream independence to me. The trust's view is that the move poses no threat . Even the first part of that sentence is not a done deal and the parliamentary Public Accounts Committee, to which the NAO usually reports, is already complaining about any possible changes to this arrangement.

The second danger is the government's apparent willingness to change the BBC's governance structure by stealth. It's unacceptable to stick one bit of the policy – NAO oversight – in the coalition agreement and make the Lib Dem beard stand up for it. The issue of BBC governance should not be decided in this piecemeal and confused way. Does the NAO move really fit with clause seven of the BBC charter, which states the trust has "general oversight of the work of the executive board", for example? And how about the much-discussed desire for a non-executive chairman? If there is one and they can appoint the next director general (what most non-exec chairmen do, after all), isn't that a contravention of the charter, which vests that power in the trust chairman? See how tangled it is once just a couple of questions are asked.

Given the number of PSB reviews we've recently endured, there's an understandable reluctance to have another. But the BBC deserves more clarity ahead of a communications act expected in 2012. It's not enough to point to forthcoming licence fee negotiations if they start after most of the changes have been made. Especially if they're made while the BBC is without an effective chairman.

A stitch-up in which the BBC is constrained and its commercial rivals given free rein would be an outrage, not least because we could have seen it coming. Witness all the soothing words on how hard it is for ITV, given falling ad revenues, and politicians' lack of interest in whether the UK's largest newspaper group should take full control of its largest subscription-funded broadcaster. Jeremy Hunt, the most obviously ambitious and well-thought-of culture secretary there's been for a while, would win enough brownie points for a big promotion if he were to oversee savage public spending cuts (goodbye hundreds of media and arts organisations) and leave a weakened BBC. Especially if he can do so by stealth and without getting into much of a public spat. The question is, should we let him?

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  2  
ThE MaStEr

Audit of BBC risks political interference by stealthA stitch-up in which the BBC is constrained and its commercial rivals given free rein would be an outrage


Did anyone notice Don Foster using the BBC World Service as an example of how giving the National Audit Office full access to BBC accounts should not hurt editorial independence? Yes, that's the same World Service that could face the axe, according to a leak just two days after the Liberal Democrat culture spokesman's comments to the Guardian. Doesn't bode well for the BBC, does it?

There's been little dissent over plans to give the NAO's value-for-money merchants greater power to investigate how the BBC spends licence fee payers' cash. The BBC Trust, whose chairman, Sir Michael Lyons, has just announced he's had enough, certainly agrees with it. BBC management simply shrugged that they are typically subjected to two significant spending reviews by the NAO a year.

In principle, they're right. Greater transparency and accountability is always a good thing, especially for an organisation so much in the firing line over its spending. Yet there are two very real dangers in this move. The first is the threat to editorial independence. Giving a separate body that reports to parliament the right to crawl all over its accounts and staff contracts does not scream independence to me. The trust's view is that the move poses no threat . Even the first part of that sentence is not a done deal and the parliamentary Public Accounts Committee, to which the NAO usually reports, is already complaining about any possible changes to this arrangement.

The second danger is the government's apparent willingness to change the BBC's governance structure by stealth. It's unacceptable to stick one bit of the policy – NAO oversight – in the coalition agreement and make the Lib Dem beard stand up for it. The issue of BBC governance should not be decided in this piecemeal and confused way. Does the NAO move really fit with clause seven of the BBC charter, which states the trust has "general oversight of the work of the executive board", for example? And how about the much-discussed desire for a non-executive chairman? If there is one and they can appoint the next director general (what most non-exec chairmen do, after all), isn't that a contravention of the charter, which vests that power in the trust chairman? See how tangled it is once just a couple of questions are asked.

Given the number of PSB reviews we've recently endured, there's an understandable reluctance to have another. But the BBC deserves more clarity ahead of a communications act expected in 2012. It's not enough to point to forthcoming licence fee negotiations if they start after most of the changes have been made. Especially if they're made while the BBC is without an effective chairman.

A stitch-up in which the BBC is constrained and its commercial rivals given free rein would be an outrage, not least because we could have seen it coming. Witness all the soothing words on how hard it is for ITV, given falling ad revenues, and politicians' lack of interest in whether the UK's largest newspaper group should take full control of its largest subscription-funded broadcaster. Jeremy Hunt, the most obviously ambitious and well-thought-of culture secretary there's been for a while, would win enough brownie points for a big promotion if he were to oversee savage public spending cuts (goodbye hundreds of media and arts organisations) and leave a weakened BBC. Especially if he can do so by stealth and without getting into much of a public spat. The question is, should we let him?

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