Wales has to be at the BBC’s top table

Hywel Wiliam says that Parliament’s Culture Select Committee is wrong to exclude the nations from the BBC Board.

Hywel Wiliam is a member of the IWA’s Media Policy Group

As Parliamentary and Senedd committees deliberate at either end of the M4 on the future of the BBC, one senses a gathering momentum. It would be more comforting if one could also see a growing understanding of the needs of Wales at the London end. There was a disturbing sign last week that, for all the research and analysis carried out recently, not least by the IWA’s own Media Policy Group, some crucial misunderstandings still persist.

Most worrying was the recommendation of Parliament’s Culture, Media and Sport Committee that Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland should not be represented on any new unitary board created to run the BBC – as if representation of those nations on the board of the UK’s most important cultural organisation was some tiresome detail that would get in the way of good governance. It is the kind of blindness that can get the union a bad name.

The committee will no doubt fall back on the defence that this is a ‘preliminary report’ and it admits that it took no evidence on the status of the nations within the BBC. That has not stopped it from being categorical in its rejection of representation of the nations on a unitary board.

The context is that it is now generally agreed that the BBC Trust is not long for this world, agreed even by the Chair of the Trust, Rona Fairhead. Alternative arrangements will have to be put in place, and everyone now awaits the report of Sir David Clementi on the BBC’s future governance. The IWA Media Policy group has submitted evidence to Sir David.

The essence of our submission is that the BBC has yet to adjust fully to the new shape of the United Kingdom and that the current review of the BBC’s Charter is the right moment for the management, governance and regulation of the BBC to become better aligned with the letter and spirit of devolution.

We recommended that the BBC should be governed by a unitary Board that would include an independent Chair and a majority of non-executives and that the non-executives should include representatives of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. We also believe that equivalent Board structures should be created to govern the BBC in each of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, with each national board also including three non-executives. The independent Chair for each national board would represent that nation on the main Board.

We further recommended that the services within and for each nation would be set out in a national service licence. This would be accompanied by a single funding allocation to cover all services provided for that nation. In addition, the current Audience Councils in the nations should be abolished and be replaced by a  National Broadcasting Council in each nation that 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.

Despite saying that governance and regulation was one of the six subjects on which it wanted to concentrate in its report, the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee singularly failed to address much of this agenda in its report, but has been very specific about the proposed unitary board. In paragraph 27 it states:

“The Board’s non-executive directors should be a group of diverse backgrounds, ideas and experience, selected by competitive process. They should be supported by a small team of high quality executives, in order to enable them to be as effective as possible. It should be clear that the position of non-executive director carries more personal responsibility than it has done recently and that there is an expectation that they will be rigorous and pro-active. Regional and national issues should be dealt with by the board collectively, not via specific director appointments. [My emphasis] The non-executives’ job specifications should be rigorously drawn and aligned with the BBC’s purposes and remit contained in its Charter.”

There are three fallacies here. The first is that one can decide the non-executive mix without reference to the mix of executives; the second, that representatives of the nations would be there simply to deal with ‘regional and national issues’; and third, that the interests of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland can always be dealt with by the retrospective comments of an external regulator.

In an era when the UK has held its breath once, wondering whether Scotland would break away, and is holding its breath yet again, wondering whether that prospect might be revived by an English wish to withdraw from Europe, it is a folly to think that a BBC unitary board should have no guaranteed representation whatsoever from each of the three smaller nations. For instance, the extent of BBC Wales’s network contributions and of the BBC’s investment in S4C, surely requires a Welsh voice around the table. It is when resources are very tight that the voices of the nations are especially necessary, otherwise we risk being steamrollered.

Such representation has been there at the BBC’s top table for more than 60 years – since the National Broadcasting Councils, headed by a National Governor, were created via the 1952 Royal Charter. At the time they were resisted by the BBC’s Board of Governors as a threat to the unity of the BBC. History has proved those fears to be groundless. If anything there has been disappointment that the National Broadcasting Councils and their successors, the present Audience Councils, have been less influential than was hoped. National Governors, on the other hand, have made a considerable contribution to the governance of the BBC beyond simply a defence of the interests of their own patch.

A week before the CMS Select Committee published its report the Chair of the BBC Trust, Rona Fairhead, and the Trustee for Wales, Elan Closs Stephens, gave evidence to a committee of the National Assembly. While preferring not to comment on the governance structures until after Clementi has reported, in this session Ms. Fairhead did display the preferences of someone used to private sector boards:

“In terms of the actual numbers, I think the challenge is always with the board to keep it of a size where it can be effective and hold to account effectively and have a majority of non-executive directors to make sure that there is enough control and governance of the executive members of the board”.

It was a point on which she was let off the hook. The private sector preference will always be for a tight board of limited numbers. But the BBC is not just a business. It is a massively influential cultural organisation, that shapes the public diet of information and entertainment, affecting many of our deepest cultural perceptions.  Its non-executives must not be defined by a FTSE 100 template. The BBC’s Board has a duty to reflect both the cultural geography and the geography of governance in these islands, now as never before.

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