BBC governance must catch up with devolution

Angela Graham says it is high time for the BBC to adjust fully to the new shape of the United Kingdom

Since Rona Fairhead, Chair of the BBC Trust, a year ago, effectively killed off the body that she chairs by calling for it to be abolished, many have been wondering how the BBC should be governed and held accountable in future. After all, the corporation has suffered more than its share of troubles in recent years. But in re-shaping the governance of the BBC there is a lot at stake, too, for us in Wales.

For that reason the IWA’s Media Policy Group has made a submission to the review of BBC governance being carried out by Sir David Clementi, a former Deputy Governor of the Bank of England, for the UK Government. If the BBC Trust generally is not fit for purpose, then neither are the current arrangements for accountability in Wales.

The truth is that the BBC has yet to adjust fully to the new shape of the United Kingdom. It has decentralised production by building centres in Salford, Glasgow and Cardiff, but it has not decentralised any decision-making. On this front it is lagging behind. Now is the right moment for the management, governance and regulation of the BBC to become better aligned with the letter and spirit of devolution.

The BBC must conquer its fear of any loosening of the reins. More devolved decision-making can be done without any injury to the essential unity or effectiveness of the institution as a whole.

In order to address these issues the IWA’s Media Group has also had to look at the whole issue of the external regulation of the BBC, now that it is clear that an internal system – the BBC Trust – has failed. We have had to ask ourselves not only what would work in Wales, but also what would work centrally. By the same token we would also urge Sir David Clementi to look carefully at ways in which central regulation and devolution can be sensibly knit together.

Any new system of regulation must be comprehensible and useful to the public, avoid unnecessary complexity, be able to respond to rapidly changing technology and customer behaviour, and strengthen the independence of the BBC.

To meet these criteria it seems to us that there are only two choices in creating a system of external regulation: either to give the task to the existing broadcast and telecommunications regulator OFCOM, or to create a new body solely to regulate the BBC. We believe the task should be given to OFCOM for the following reasons:

First, the BBC already has to observe many of OFCOM’s rules and standards, such as on listed events, a standards code, a fairness code, quotas for independent production and market impact assessments. If a new regulator is created solely to regulate the BBC, the corporation will be subject to two regulators. While this has been the case during this Charter period it is now time to end this fragmentation.

Second, in the last 10 years OFCOM has established systems and considerable experience in broadcast and telecommunications as well as prodigious knowledge of public service broadcasting (psb) acquired through the regular reviews of psb required of it under the Communications Act.

Third, given the convergence of broadcast television and the Internet, there would be a distinct advantage in having one regulator bridging the whole area.

Fourth, and by no means least, in Wales it would also mean that both the BBC and the S4C Authority (already responsible to OFCOM) would be usefully subject to the same regulatory regime. It would also avoid further proliferation of advisory bodies, since OFCOM would be able to take advantage of existing advisory systems in each of the nations.

So much for regulation. The other nettle that has to be grasped is the BBC’s own governance, especially its arrangements in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

It is virtually certain that, given external regulation, the BBC will be governed centrally by a unitary Board comprising both senior executives and non-executive directors.

Equivalent Board structures, including non-executive directors, should be created to govern the BBC in each of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Each national Board would include at least three non-executives. The independent Chair for each national board would represent that nation on the main Board, as well as chairing a National Broadcasting Council. The current BBC Audience Councils in the nations should be abolished.

The new NBCs would be the guardians of a national service licence that would encompass all the television, radio and online services designed for audiences in Wales – services that would be funded by a single block grant. This is an essential change, as successive media audits by the IWA have demonstrated weakness of the current service licences where the definition of the service for each nation is dispersed through different radio, television and online licences. As a result the BBC Trust has never taken a holistic view of the services in each nation.

The NBCs in each nation would

– approve the allocation of resources between the services

– monitor and review annually the delivery of the national service licence

– ascertain and monitor the state of public opinion

– ascertain the needs and interests of members of the public

– assist the Board in each nation in the formulation of objectives for that nationʼs services

– monitor that nationʼs contribution to the BBCʼs network services as well as the coverage and portrayal of that nation in those services

– advise the BBC centrally, as it sees fit, on any matters relating to the output, management, governance or reputation of the BBC.

Public appointment of national representatives on the main BBC Board and the non-executives and Chair of each nation’s Board should be subject to the approval of the relevant Minister in the devolved government, in effect making them joint appointments with the DCMS.

The BBC as a whole, as well as the National Broadcasting Councils, should be required to lay before the respective devolved Assemblies or Parliament and devolved governments, annual reports on all the BBCs operations in and affecting that nation. The scope and specification of these reports should be agreed with the devolved administrations.

It is an undeniable reality that public service broadcasting has to be delivered in a world where technology is collapsing traditional service boundaries. That is not an argument for relinquishing all control to wider bodies or to global market forces. On the contrary. The future of our broadcasting institutions and services is a vital matter for our democracy, our culture and our economy. We must exercise greater vigilance and shape better tools to generate effective influence on the shape and scope of services that are essential to us as individuals and as a nation.

Angela Graham is the Chair of the IWA's Media Policy Group.

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