An influential group of MPs has urged the BBC to scrap its current practice of self-regulation and temporarily reduce the length of its next Charter as new legislation for a more permanent BBC is worked out.
The Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, headed by Labour MP Gerald Kaufman, put forward 38 recommendations today aimed at ensuring the BBC remains a public service and a permanent fixture in British broadcasting.
The committee put forward plans to create an inspection board, independent of the Corporation’s management, who would keep tabs on how the BBC is being run.
The BBC should also have a legally permanent status through an Act of Parliament, relieving it of pressures to appeal for renewal of its Charter, the current one of which expires in 2006, the committee also proposed.
However, any suggestions that the funding of the BBC would be overhauled were swept aside when the committee said it proposed keeping the licence fee in place permanently to ensure universal access to BBC broadcasting.
Kaufman said the “status quo” was not an option as it BBC embarks on a period of massive change in terms of its remit in the digital television and radio market.
He added: “Our recommendations are aimed at assisting the development of proposals that would take a strong and independent BBC, but also, an accountable, open and efficient BBC in to what is an uncertain future in broadcasting.”
Don Foster MP, Liberal Democrat shadow culture, media and sport secretary, said: "The Culture Committee's recommendation that BBC governors responsibilities as the ‘flag wavers' and regulators of the BBC should be split must be taken seriously by the Government.
"But the proposals don't go far enough. I'd like to see an independent body to regulate the public service broadcasting remits of the BBC and the other terrestrial TV channels."
The Committee was heavily critical of the BBC’s existing structure, which has been in place since 1927, where self-regulation is not divorced from the Corporation’s management.
Kaufman said the present system, which has been in place since 1927, “simply doesn’t work anymore”.
He said that former BBC chairman Gavin Davies had painted himself into a corner in the wake of the Hutton Inquiry, having the impossible job of simultaneously defending how the BBC is run and sitting on the board.
Committee member Alan Keen, MP for Feltham and Heston, said, as the BBC had no independent monitoring body it had no “backstop” and no position from which to defend.
Despite proposed reforms at the BBC, Kaufman suggested the BBC’s new chairman, Michael Grade, had not gone far enough yet.
Kaufman said he wanted to see the Board of Governors split in two, one half charged with running the BBC, the other half monitoring this operation independently.
Kaufman added that “the best way of sorting out the governance of the BBC is not internally”.
Chris Bryant, MP for Rhondda, said the Committee wanted the inspection board to be made up of professionals from inside and outside of the BBC who have knowledge and experience of the media market they operate in.
Kaufman added that appointments to this board would not be made in a “tokenistic” way, with, instead, the best people for the job getting the job.
Another Committee member, Frank Doran, MP for Aberdeen Central, said: “The BBC is not just a national treasure; it’s also a £3 billion a year business.”
He said it should be consequently run like one.
Replacing the Charter
The Committee proposed an abolition of the “anachronistic” Royal Charter system, which the BBC has operated under since 1927, whereby the Corporation has to reapply when each Charter expires – the current one of which is to do so in 2006.
Kaufman said he wanted to see the BBC “entrenched in a Communications Act” – an Act of Parliament that would give the BBC a legally permanent status, where its mandate could be reconsidered and adjusted with each new act if needs be.
Kaufman criticised the Charter renewal process, which currently sees the BBC distorting its output and activities to make sure it wins another Charter.
He said, that if permanent status were afforded, the BBC would have a greater stability allowing it to plan more for the future with more certainty – especially important as the “digital age” threatens to take over.
Kaufman said he was reflecting public opinion in saying “there should always be a BBC.”
While legislation for this BBC Act is prepared, the Committee recommended awarding the BBC an interim Charter of five years beginning in 2006.
Keeping the Licence Fee
The Committee said keeping the licence fee was essential to funding the BBC and maintaining it as a public service that is universally accessible.
Kaufman said the only alternative was to adopt a subscription system for BBC services, but this would reduce the BBC’s accessibility to poorer customers.
He said he was a “reluctant enthusiast” for the licence fee, but rejected ideas of advertising appearing on BBC broadcasts.
He said: “We don’t like the idea of BBC programmes being interrupted with advertising.”
He also suggested advertising on the BBC would damage its commercial terrestrial rivals, ITV1, Channel 4 and Five, financially.
Bryant said Britain had a settled view when it came to the licence fee, with even Sky having given evidence in favour of retaining the fee.
The Committee also rejected the idea of “top-slicing” the fee, which would see non-BBC public service providers receiving a percentage of the fee.
The Committee said that more concessions should be offered for poorer licence fee payers, and that non-payment should be decriminalised, becoming a civil matter.
In terms of the BBC’s scope and remit, the Committee suggested no major changes.
Plans to have BBC Three converted to a dedicated film channel were panned, with the Committee saying they were keen to keep BBC Three and Four as targeted channels distinct from BBC One and BBC Two, and not clones of the terrestrial channels.
The report said that educational, informative, arts and religion programming “should not be shunted into digital ghettos” but should be kept on terrestrial TV.
The Committee also recommended that the Government should consider developing a television version of the radio World Service, and also raise quotas and funding for independent productions and UK film.
It was also recommended that the BBC retains its commercial subsidiaries, such as its magazines, as long as it competes on fair terms with all profits being ploughed back in to public service broadcasting.
Though this received no special attention in the report, it was recommended that the Government takes active steps to promote public awareness of digital switchover and set out a clear timetable for change.
Kaufman said: “We are about to embark on new territory for the BBC.”
“The BBC is unique – it has got status we want to maintain and enhance,” he added.
By Martin Hemming and Kevin May