Rona Fairhead, chair of the BBC Trust, has warned that the future of the Corporation under the formal Charter review debate needs to be driven by evidence and fact, not by prejudice and not by vested interest, with the public having the right to play a central role in deciding its future of its BBC, independent scrutiny and regulation, carried out by a separate body representing licence fee payers, not by politicians.
Contributing an extensive article to The BBC Today: Future Uncertain, a forthcoming publication and reproduced by UK daily newspaper The Independent, Fairhead says the over-arching question for that debate is: “What is the right BBC for the next generation? And from that come other questions. What should its role and mission be? Should it still seek to serve everybody in return for a licence fee that we all pay? How can it best serve generations to come, both in terms of its programmes but also the wider benefits it brings to society and the economy? How can it best maintain its independence from politicians and commercial interests? How can it partner more and stimulate, but not crowd out, the competition? When does it need boundaries and what form should they take, including around its online services? And how can it most effectively and efficiently serve audiences when it faces increasing financial constraints that will entail ever tougher choices?”
Suggesting that the review process is “still in the foothills”, she sets out the thoughts of the Trust on these questions, which she says are largely rooted in what the public have told it over the past eight-and-a-half years. “Despite the incessant noise around it, the future of the BBC needs to be driven by evidence and fact, not by prejudice and not by vested interest,” she warns.
Assessing a number of funding and governance options, Fairhead says the immediate question is where the budget decision leaves the Charter review process. “It is essential that we now have an open and honest discussion with licence fee payers about what sort of BBC they want for their money, given that the financial framework has been set. We have already started that conversation but it might ultimately mean presenting the public with pick-and-mix options to establish their priorities,” she admits.
“The Trust is determined this charter review should establish that future changes to BBC funding should require public consultation and some form of parliamentary scrutiny. This will help protect both the BBC’s financial and its editorial independence, for the two are entwined. Research carried out for the Trust shows clearly that the public see a need for independent scrutiny and regulation, but they want this done by a separate body representing licence fee payers, not by politicians,” she states.
“That independence has needed defending over decades, not just from governments but also from parliament, with a growing tendency in recent years for select committees to question BBC executives about detailed editorial decisions. We believe that this charter review gives us a chance to codify the relationship between the BBC and the state, and the BBC and its public, so that the terms of engagement are clear, the processes transparent, and the BBC can be seen to be both accountable and independent,” she suggests.
“In brief, our view is that the BBC needs to be run by a stronger unitary executive board with an independent chairman and a majority of non-executive directors. It would have sole responsibility for running the BBC and its strategy and corporate governance. The BBC’s services would be scrutinised by an external regulator, taking over the trust’s responsibilities for quality control and accountability. It would regulate the BBC’s market impact and ensure that it abided by fair trading principles. We think it needs to be a bespoke regulator for a whole range of reasons. Audiences have higher expectations of the BBC than of other broadcasters, and they want the BBC to be held to higher standards. And we believe the BBC’s regulator should have a public role in providing guidance on what would be a sufficient level of funding to enable the corporation to fulfil its public purposes and meet the expectations of the public,” she advises.
“The public have the right to play a central role in deciding the future of their BBC. We will do everything we can to encourage them to seize the opportunity. They have all grown up with the BBC. Now they must say what BBC they want to hand on to the next generation,” she concludes.