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Ofcom to regulate BBC?

Reports in the UK daily press have presented differing views on whether the BBC Trust will be axed and its powers handed to the communications regulator Ofcom. The Daily Telegraph, quoting “Westminster sources” suggests this is the case, but according to The Guardian, a forthcoming Green Paper on the BBC is likely to call for the abolition of the BBC Trust without backing an alternative regulator, it says, citing its own “sources close to the government”, with one declaring that to say that a decision has been taken is “just nonsense”.

John Whittingdale, the new Culture Secretary, when Chairman of the influential Culture Select Committee, suggested in February 2015 that the BBC was in need of stronger governance and more challenging, independent oversight if it was to be held accountable. He said that the BBC Trust had failed to meet expectations and should be abolished. “It remains far too close to the BBC and blurs accountability of the BBC rather than it being a sharp and effective overseer of the BBC’s performance as a public service institution,” he suggested.

“An organisation of the size and cost of the BBC must be subject to the most rigorous independent scrutiny. A single BBC Board would be fully and transparently accountable for its governance and spending. We recommend the establishment of a new Public Service Broadcasting Commission with wide powers to scrutinise the BBC’s strategic plan, assessing the BBC’s overall performance, and determining the level of public funding allocated to the BBC and to others.”

Shortly afterwards, Rona Fairhead, Chairman of the BBC Trust, said its responsibilities for regulation and accountability be should be transferred to an external regulator, with strategy and oversight remaining with the Corporation’s Executive Board. Fairhead said she was committed to making the current system work through to the end of the current Charter, but was making the case for what she described as “intelligent reform” in particular structural change that would provide greater clarity in one particular area – the oversight of the BBC’s strategy and its operational decision-making.

“These roles cannot be left to Government or Parliament if the BBC itself is to remain independent as the public wish it to be. And it needs to be recognised that there is no ‘perfect’ governance system – ultimately it’s about clarity of accountability and key relationships based on trust and respect,” she suggested.

Fairhead said that some of the big Charter Review debates would be about the impact of changes in technology, the market and audience behaviour, which would also influence the way in which the BBC is regulated. She said the cleanest form of separation would be to transfer the Trust’s responsibilities for regulation and accountability to an external regulator. “The Trust is convinced suggested that there needed to be a bespoke regulator for the BBC, given the higher expectations that audiences have for its editorial and creative standards and the particular concerns that exist about its market impact and fair trading. There should be a single body responsible for setting those standards for the BBC, licensing and regulating its activities, and holding it to account for the way it spends public money,” she stated.

According to Fairhead, this was why the Trust had some concerns about the Select Committee’s proposal for a Public Service Broadcasting Commission. “We question its ability to exert real authority if it were unable to set BBC service licences and editorial standards. And carving up the licence fee may weaken the direct line of ownership and accountability that runs between the public and the BBC,” she warned. Were Ofcom to assume regulatory control of the BBC, this would mark a rejection of Fairhead’s proposals.

Shadow culture secretary Chris Bryant has called for the launch of a consultation on the BBC’s future as a “matter of urgency”, describing it as the single biggest cultural investment made in the UK and “one of our greatest assets”.

So-called ‘Green Papers’ are intended to provide a starting point for discussion rather than table firm proposals. It is likely that any such document would be published before the parliamentary recess on July 20th.

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