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BBC Trust Chair: ‘Policy evolution, not revolution’

Rona Fairhead, Chairman of the BBC Trust has suggested the Corporation’s future will best be protected through intelligent reform rather than policy revolution, and that it should be regulated by a robust, independent body with real teeth, with its own Charter, powers and responsibilities.

Speaking at the Voice of the Listener and Viewer’s Autumn 2015 Conference, Fairhead noted that there had been an unprecedented response to the Trust’s public consultation on the Government’s green paper on Charter Renewal with tens of thousands of people taking the time to tell the Trust what they think.

According to Fairhead, there is next-to-no public appetite for radical change in the BBC. “They want us to build an even better BBC, not to tear it down. They want us to build on the BBC’s strong foundations, not dig them up. Of course they want to see some changes, but people want tomorrow’s BBC to be protected but reformed. So, yes to intelligent, targeted improvements. No to total transformation. They want evolution, not revolution,” she advised.

She suggested that in the past ten years, the BBC had shown that it can change for the better. “In the next ten years, it will need to extend and accelerate those changes. Some of this is down to the BBC itself but some of it is about the Charter Review and today I want to talk about how that is an opportunity to build an even better BBC in three areas – remit, regulation, and revenue. In other words – what is the BBC for; how should it be held to account; and how should it be paid for? These are three fundamental questions but that doesn’t mean they should be met with fundamentalist answers. In each of these three areas, the Trust believes tomorrow’s BBC can be protected through intelligent reform rather than policy revolution,” she stated.

In terms of BBC governance, Fairhead confirmed that the Trust was working closely with Sir David Clementi’s independent review into how the BBC is governed and regulated. “The Trust has suggested to Sir David that a unitary Board should in future be given a clear mandate to run the organisation – with full responsibility for all creative judgements; financial decisions; and the development and delivery of strategy. What that Board cannot do, however, is regulate the BBC as well. That needs to be done by a robust, independent body with real teeth, with its own Charter, powers and responsibilities,” she suggested. “That kind of intelligent reform to create a bespoke system is needed because the BBC is a broadcaster like no other and it will help build a better BBC, not tear it down.”

In terms of funding, Fairhead said the Trust would like the Government to rule out a subscription or part-subscription model for funding the BBC’s public services. “There is little public support – less than a quarter of people – for a system that charges a basic fee for a basic BBC service and then more for top-ups or extras. In our view, this won’t build a better BBC; it would start to tear it apart. Aside from the obvious controversies over what and how and by whom a ‘basic’ service would be determined, a subscription model would endanger both universality and distinctiveness by creating for the first time a profit motive for programme makers and a financial pressure to cater, not to everyone, but to the tastes of those who subscribe,” she warned.

“When it comes to funding, stability is essential. That’s why the BBC must not be treated like a government piggy bank to be raided when times are tough. If we want to build a better BBC, even in these still straightened days, there can be no more top-slicing,” she declared.

She suggested that if the BBC’s independence was to be protected, the Trust wanted to see a more formal role for the regulator in proposing future funding levels for the BBC and for the Charter to set out this process, which must include proper public engagement.

“Licence fee payers have told us what they want. For us to build an even better BBC, not to tear it down. They want tomorrow’s BBC to be reformed but sustained. For this Charter Review, the public call for evolution, not revolution – targeted, intelligent changes to allow a strong, confident, universal, and independent BBC to thrive long into the future,” she concluded.

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