Undermining BBC trust 

9 September 2013 tbs.pm/1321

Given that the UK TV licence fee is now classified as a tax, the BBC’s accounts have been opened up to closer scrutiny by a Public Accounts Committee (PAC) and it’s this in particular that’s currently causing significant headaches for both ex-BBC Director-General Mark Thompson along with various key BBC figures and the BBC Trust, given that the latter’s role is supposedly to protect licence fee payers’ interests against mismanagement and wastage.

What has recently caused such a rumpus relates to various payouts received by senior BBC management figures when they were made redundant in Thompson’s cost-cutting clearout; many of which were over and above the statutory minimum that they could reasonably expect for their period of service. Mark Byford’s £1m+ redundancy windfall in particular provoked significant ire amongst PAC members determined to discover exactly why these sums were being authorised and by whom. And several BBC staff members indirectly pointed a finger of blame towards one source: the BBC Trust.

The BBC Trust was set up in the aftermath of that infamous Hutton Report scandal in order to somehow rectify alleged mistakes that had led to Greg Dyke resigning from his Director-General position and Mark Thompson being appointed in his place, therefore it’s somewhat ironic that the Trust is now being undermined by the supposed activities of Thompson along with various other BBC management figures such as head of HR Lucy Adams, who took a lot of flack from the interviewing committee for her perceived role in all of this. Mark Thompson’s performance in front of the committee appeared to be similarly wonky at times, and he seemed to be desperately clinging to his script of following correct procedures along with delivering that all-important value for money despite the lingering doubts of many committee members.

There arguably weren’t any major upsets in the committee meeting, perhaps to the disappointment of some observers who had queued for a place in what was promised to be a highly-charged encounter, and BBC staff members more or less stuck to the line that if they had followed correct procedures in terms of redundancy renumeration (which they naturally claimed to have done), then they had essentially done nothing wrong despite the contentious nature of what were undoubtedly huge sums of money. Margaret Hodge led the committee with some tough questioning, though it’s hotly debatable as to whether or not certain frames of reference employed for questioning were actually relevant under the circumstances; for example, it’s unfair to compare executive salaries with the pay levels of many non-executive positions, regardless of any justification for doing so.

Despite all of this finger-pointing, the current BBC Trust head Lord Patten actually came out of the grilling reasonably well as a consequence, despite the Trust being heavily implicated in a serious dereliction of duty relating to management wastage. Patten was able to say with confidence that Byford’s redundancy payment wasn’t included in his in-tray when he joined the Trust even if it should have been, which helped to defuse a serious allegation that he had misled Parliament (plus Sharon Baylay’s settlement was dealt with elsewhere). Patten was also able to remind the committee that the Trust’s remit does not include regulating pay levels or redundancy payments, but that still left the committee wondering exactly what the Trust is for.

If the Trust is to be killed off, the big question just has to be the nature of its replacement, but we’ll have to wait until 2017 (and a change of government) for something that requires primary legislation, and that crucially may also include changes that could fundamentally affect the BBC’s charter. Early suggestions seem to be leaning towards a combination of giving Ofcom a greater regulatory responsibility in tandem with a committee that involves senior BBC management figures along with outsiders.

Possible advantages to Ofcom being more involved in BBC regulation might include fostering a better understanding with commercial broadcasters (might also be a disadvantage), serving as a “one-stop shop” for most media-related complaints and a better appreciation of what constitutes a valid complaint. The BBC Trust has been criticised for some contentious decisions perhaps caused by attempts to justify its existence as a regulator, but Ofcom has no need to further justify itself thereby avoiding such a potential problem. Plus Ofcom’s remit relates to so-called light touch regulation therefore it’s fairly unlikely that it would be expected to treat the BBC significantly differently compared to its commercial competitors.

But what about the BBC’s ability to remunerate those in managerial positions; people who are recruited to make critical decisions on behalf of licence fee-payers that have a measurable impact on what millions of people may watch/listen or read every day? Licence fee-payers should demand value for money from their BBC, but at the same time they ought to realise that the best things in life don’t come for free. It’s unfortunate that a top-heavy management structure at the BBC hadn’t been properly dealt with up to that point, making the BBC appear to be a corporation giving “jobs for the boys” to lots of well-paid “fat cats”, so to speak, despite some excellent work being performed throughout the corporation by its programme-makers and production staff.

And if any future government decides for whatever reason to implement a form of externally-regulated salary cap for BBC staff, there’s a real danger that such controls could easily be misused to apply indirect pressure to the corporation by any government dissatisfied with the BBC’s output in any form if it had the means to do so; for example, if the BBC were to broadcast a documentary that criticised the government of the day, that same government could subsequently threaten to restrict the BBC’s ability to pay at least some of its staff even when the payments are still considered to be legitimate and proportional by most people. Therefore any future attempt to externally regulate BBC staff salaries should be viewed with great suspicion regardless of the circumstances, and if done at all it should ideally concern itself with head count as opposed to regulating individual salaries (which would be difficult and controversial to implement).

Fortunately it seems that the current Director-General Lord Tony Hall is planning a major overhaul of the BBC’s management structure, resulting in a clearout that’s long overdue and something that will hopefully restore some goodwill in the longer term to a corporation which is still slowly recovering from previous scandals; indeed it has been said the BBC has only really been let down by the behaviour of certain individuals. The next two to three years will be critical in determining the long term future of the BBC and whether it will survive with its dignity, creativity and public relevance intact.

Again it’s over to you, Lord Hall…

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