BBC Chairman has "much to get to grips with"

19 May 2011

In a report released today on the BBC’s Licence Fee Settlement and Annual Report, the Culture Media and Sport Committee says that the main outcomes of the BBC Trust’s strategic review "do not move the BBC on" to the extent required by current circumstances, and that the incoming Chairman will have "much to get grips with". It concludes that big questions remain over how radically the BBC needs to reconfigure both content and delivery in the years ahead.

John Whittingdale, Chair of the Committee said:

"The big questions about the BBC's content and how they deliver that content still mostly hang unanswered after the BBC Trust's strategy review. Our sense is that the hard choices are yet to come, but they should not be avoided any longer.

The way the new licence fee was agreed – a short, private, negotiation between the BBC and the Government - did not do much to inspire confidence in the independence, transparency or accountability of the process. We appreciate that time was of the essence in difficult circumstances, but if the BBC is going to continue to benefit from a universal licence fee then it is essential that the viewers who pay that licence fee, and Parliament, are involved when these kind of far reaching decisions are taken.

It is also essential that arrangements for independent assessments of the BBC’s value for that money by the NAO are soon firmly in place and on show for all to see. The NAO must have the powers it needs to do this.

The World Service delivers huge benefits in terms of Britain's reputation and influence overseas. We agree with the Foreign Affairs Committee that there is a strong case for reversing some or all of its planned funding cuts, but also in making sure that the right balance is struck  between funding for the domestic and world services.

The decision – particularly regrettable in the current climate – to appoint a change manager who had to commute from the United States, cannot be dismissed as an inconsequential gaffe. The incoming Chairman will need to ensure the BBC, as a publicly accountable body, always leads by example.

The new Chairman of the BBC trust has got a lot to get to grips with and we will look forward to an indication of the way the Chairman and the Director General are tackling the big questions on the future direction and shape of  BBC services in our next annual hearing with them."

The licence fee settlement

The new licence fee agreement was reached "unexpectedly" last October between the Department for Culture Media and Sport and the BBC, but without any time for wider consultation with viewers or Parliament. Although this was a pragmatic move at the time, and the Committee believes the agreement reached is a reasonable one, it undermined confidence  in both the Government's and the BBC's commitment to transparency and accountability and should not be repeated.

BBC's partnership with S4C

While the Committee accepts that both the BBC and S4C may benefit from the new partnership, it is unclear how S4C can retain its independence under the new arrangements, and finds it extraordinary that the Government and the BBC should agree such wide-ranging changes without consultation or giving S4C any notice or say at all.

Plans for local TV

The Committee concludes that plans for local TV are only in their formative stages, and it remains to be demonstrated whether the sums the BBC has undertaken to commit to this project represents good value for the licence fee payer.

Transparency and accountability

The Committee is particularly concerned that though the Government promised to allow the National Audit Office “unfettered access” to conduct independent assessments of the BBC’s value for money, current proposals fail to deliver this. The Government should ensure that the NAO has the powers it needs to provide independent assessments of the value for money of BBC expenditure. These should be reported to Parliament.

The Committee is disappointed that banded information on talent salaries is still not in the public domain. It urges the BBC to increase the speed with which it implements this, and other, changes.

Migration manager

The Committee also says the BBC opened itself to “self-inflicted and predictable ridicule” with the decision to hire a “migration manager” who had to commute from the United States to manage the transition to the BBC’s new Media City headquarters in Salford Quays, Manchester.

Image: PA

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