Future of the BBC - Culture, Media and Sport Contents


8  Constitutional basis

341. The main alternatives to a Royal Charter are to establish the BBC through either an Act of Parliament (i.e. the BBC would be a statutory corporation), or as a limited company. The BBC Trust believes neither alternative provides the same level of protection for the BBC's independence as the current system.[380] Nonetheless, as we have set out above, it is questionable how successful the Charter is in practice in protecting the independence of the BBC from Governments and politicians in light of the 2010 licence fee settlement, where the BBC was pressured to take on additional responsibilities.

342. According to the BBC Executive, the Charter terms are subject to extensive political debate at the time of Charter Review, ensuring appropriate parliamentary and public scrutiny, but with a relatively fixed period to provide room for the BBC to deliver on its commitments.[381] The BBC considered a ten-year term gives it a sufficient horizon over which to plan investment and helps to keep decisions on the BBC's remit out of step with the electoral cycle. However, this may not be the case if five-year fixed-term parliaments continue. The BBC also believed that the Charter has a "symbolic value", emphasising for the UK public and others the special role and responsibilities which the BBC has as an independent broadcaster and "trusted national institution".

343. We have received no representations calling for the BBC to have a statutory footing. The majority of witnesses told us that a ten-year Royal Charter remained the best mechanism for insulating the BBC and securing its independence. A key feature of Charter Review is that it provides the opportunity to allow external bodies to hold the BBC to account and allows committees such as ours to examine the BBC and the key strategic issues such as what the BBC is for, how it is governed and run, what resources it needs and how these might be delivered. Lord Burns considered a ten-year Charter was a good device for avoiding political interference in the BBC's affairs but allowing opportunity to remould the BBC to meet the needs of the next decade. However, he observed that last time Parliament should have had more involvement in the process of reviewing the BBC's Charter:

    Although I would not like to see it dealt with in the same way as legislation whereby each line of the charter is worked over, I think there is something that is slightly strange to be able to bring forward such a complicated set of proposals, including also the issue of the level of the licence fee, and not to have a rather better oversight and discussion within Parliament about this. There is a moment in this whole process where Government suddenly has a great deal of power. I would like to find some mechanism that would somehow combine the benefits of the strength of the charter in giving independence to the BBC but where Parliament also has a part to play in this whole consultation and the process of reaching a decision. If I look back to last time, I would say the people who were least consulted in all of this were the two Houses.[382]

344. Philip Graf believed that there might be an argument for a limited mid-term review of the BBC Charter given the speed and change of the broadcasting environment and the uncertainty ahead but that such a review should not re-open the debate on all aspects of the BBC.[383] Others argued that this could compromise the security and independence that the Charter gives.[384] However, as our report demonstrates, much of the detailed arrangements setting out the BBC's responsibilities are contained within the Framework Agreement with the Secretary of State and, if anything, there is a much greater need for this document to be subject to more rigorous scrutiny, as well as a debate about whether aspects contained within it should be incorporated into the Charter instead. Lord Hall was open to the idea of a mid-term review of the BBC's position:

    I think the independence of the BBC is crucial and that would point me towards a 10-year period. If you were to say that because things move quickly, the industry changes quickly, there needs to be some sort of five-year "how are you doing" follow-up, I would be more than happy to say yes to that. Again, it is about accountability.[385]

Ed Richards pointed out that the setting of the licence fee should allow a type of mid-Charter Review[386] but, as we have set out earlier, the 2010 settlement did not involve any consultation of the public or Parliament. It has also been the case that amendments to the Framework Agreement receive little or no involvement by Parliament.

345. We believe there would be merit in holding five-yearly reviews of the Framework Agreement but that should not involve opening up a much wider debate on the constitutional issues and core purposes of the BBC, which a mid-term review of the Charter would inevitably lead to. For instance, a review of the Framework could consider issues such as the funding and range of the BBC's provision of services. Parliament must have an increased role in scrutinising the BBC's Agreement with the Secretary of State, and any amendments to it, and in scrutinising the draft Charter itself. This should conclude with a debate on the draft Charter and Agreement on the Floor of the House.

346. Our report's conclusions and recommendations have set out the questions and issues that must be considered during the Charter Review process on the BBC's position beyond 2016. It will be important these issues are properly considered and that the process is a consultative one so that Charter Review allows the UK public opportunity to influence what a future BBC should look like and how it should be funded.

347. We believe that the BBC Royal Charter has stood the test of time and that it remains the best constitutional arrangement for establishing the BBC. We conclude that a ten-year Charter would provide the BBC with the security it requires, and certainty for the wider broadcasting, media and communications and technology sectors. If full consultation and consideration can be given before the expiry of the current Charter, we recommend that the BBC be granted a further ten-year Charter, with a mid-term review of the Framework Agreement with Government or, alternatively, at any time, when substantial amendments are made to this document.

348. Should there be insufficient time to complete a comprehensive review of the BBC before the present Charter's expiry, or to implement the Committee's recommendations on governance, we recommend that the BBC is granted a short supplementary Charter of no more than a two-year period enabling the full review to take place and to implement detailed plans to replace the Trust.

349. We recommend that the Public Service Broadcasting Commission is established as a statutory body rather than having a parallel charter to that of the BBC.


380   BBC Trust (FBB0096) Back

381   BBC (FBB0097), para 64 Back

382   Q294 (Lord Burns) Back

383   Q294 (Philip Graf) Back

384   Q507  Back

385   Q584 Back

386   Q507 Back


 
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© Parliamentary copyright 2015
Prepared 25 February 2015