Select Committee on BBC Charter Review Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum by the Voice of the Listener and Viewer

  1.  One of the central issues underpinning the second stage of the inquiry by the Lords BBC Charter Review Committee is the degree and nature of the BBC's accountability to the British public. In its Green Paper, Review of the BBC's Royal Charter; a strong BBC, independent of Government, (May 2005) the Government proposed a revised structure in which the BBC Governors would be replaced by a BBC Trust which would be responsible for policy issues and be more accountable to the public than the Governors had previously been.

  2.  In general, VLV supports this division of responsibilities between the BBC Trust and the BBC Board of Management, although as will be seen from our response to the Green Paper, we believe that many legal and administrative details have yet to be sorted out.

  3.  The Government's aim is to ensure the editorial independence and security of funding necessary to enable the BBC to continue in its role as the cornerstone of British broadcasting. VLV is pleased to note that the BBC has made a good start in implementing reforms in its governance structure in line with the suggestions in the Green Paper. Whether the proposed arrangements will prove successful in combining public accountability with editorial freedom, however, remains to be seen. We can, for instance, envisage some problems and possible conflicts of interest arising over the handling of complaints. VLV, will do everything it can to help make the new arrangements work successfully.

  4.  The second issue that we believe it is important to note is the changing nature of British society and television. Under Lord Reith, the BBC adopted a centralist top-down editorial policy but after the arrival of ITV it changed to a more populist approach in order to maintain audience share in competition with the advertising-funded TV network.

  5.  The philosophy behind the Green Paper was, broadly speaking, one of adding public value to the BBC's services—stressing in particular the importance of the educational and informational roles of the BBC. VLV believes the entertainment provided by the BBC is also extremely valuable. We were therefore pleased to note that the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport reported recently that the majority of responses she had received from the public to the Green Paper shared this view.

  6.  In the digital environment viewers will increasingly be able to pick and choose which channels they wish to watch. Simply increasing the number of channels available will not necessarily lead to more choice or to better quality programming. Nor is it possible to ensure that viewers will watch a programme that the BBC or the Government feels is good for them. The most important thing is to ensure that public policy supports a broadcasting ecology in which a range and quality of programming can flourish, including educational and entertainment programmes.

  7.  In tandem with the digital revolution, Britain is experiencing a period of major cultural change and becoming multi-ethnic and multi-faith, indeed in some places also multilingual. These viewers now have the option of looking outside Britain for choice. Thirteen Asian channels are currently available on the Sky satellite platform, for instance, and hundreds of others on the hot bird satellite.


  8.  Sport is a traditional component of the broadcasting mix and both the BBC and other terrestrial broadcasters have the power to influence the popularity of a sport. For example, Strictly Come Dancing, one of the BBC's recent successes, not only provided good entertainment but also encouraged many viewers to take up the pastime, while Channel 4's innovative coverage of cricket has added greatly to the popularity of that sport in recent years.

  9.  Some sports, such as Association Football, are so popular they have a unique ability to bring the nation together. We believe that there should be no restrictions therefore on which sports the BBC and other public service broadcasters are allowed to bid for. We welcome the fact that under European rules major sports fixtures are included in the list of protected events which may not be sold for exclusive showing on a subscription service—and the fact that the list also includes cultural and national events. The definition of which events should listed may vary from time to time but it is important the principle remains to protect the public interest.

  10.  VLV sees no reason to change these arrangements. We believe the BBC has a duty to provide licence payers with a range of sports coverage. We do not consider that the Corporation has abused its position when bidding for sports rights and we see no need for an independent review of the process.

  11.  The Lords Committee has suggested that the BBC might have a duty to bid for certain sports events. We do not believe this to be a practicable proposal, since if the BBC did not wish to bid for a particular event, it could simply get around its legal duty by submitting an one that was unreasonably low. There is only once circumstance in which it might make marginal sense to require the BBC to bid for a listed event—if no other free-to-air broadcaster wished to bid for the rights to cover it—but this seems an unlikely situation in which the BBC might be forced to bid for an event that few people wanted to watch.


  12.  We are not in a position to judge whether the BBC's proposed move of some of its departments to Manchester will represent value for licence fee money. Nor is it possible for us to judge whether the move will successfully overcome a London-centric commissioning process. Much will depend on whether the investment is sufficiently large to establish a critical mass in the climate of creative production.

  13.  Digital technology, in particular digital terrestrial transmission, offers the possibility for establishing more local services throughout the United Kingdom, including city television stations and ultra local television and radio services based within existing BBC premises and radio stations. Following devolution it is important for the BBC to develop new ways of serving audiences in the nations and regions. It is already experimenting with some but we feel it is too early to assess how successful they are, or what the extra costs might be.


  14.  VLV considers that the BBC World Service does a superb job, not only in providing a well-trusted source of news and information to the world, but also in promoting British culture, goods and services to the world. We understand the arguments for introducing a television service in Arabic, but in view of the number of services now competing in the Middle East (compared with those existing when the BBC first attempted such a service 10 years ago) we cannot say whether the advantages that will derive from the new service will outweigh the disadvantages that will flow from the loss of the proven value of the 10 vernacular radio language services being sacrificed to fund it.


  15.  In general, VLV considers that the mission statement agreed by the Committee of Minister of the Council of Europe in 1994 is still the most sensible course for the BBC to follow in relation to religious broadcasting. The resolution stated that a public service broadcaster should "reflect the different philosophical and religious beliefs in society, with the aim of strengthening mutual understanding and tolerance and promoting community relations in pluri-ethnic and multicultural societies."

  16.  The BBC already features many different faiths, including occasionally humanists, in its current programme output. We believe that it would be better for the BBC to comply with the Council of Europe resolution rather than require it to represent specific faiths in its programmes, services or governance.


  17.  Whilst VLV considers that the BBC's primary duty to licence fee payers is to provide them with a wide range of high quality programmes and services that seek to make the good popular, and the popular good, irrespective of their source, the BBC may be one of the few broadcasters in the multi-channel future with the ability to commission and broadcast a wide range of indigenous programmes. Whether the BBC produces these programmes itself or commissions them from independent producers, is to some extent of secondary importance. Nevertheless the central role that the BBC has traditionally played, both in the creative process of programme making and in training programme makers, cannot be ignored. As the industry becomes more competitive and fragmented it is vital that the BBC uses the stability offered by its privileged position and funding to sustain a critical mass of creative production in order to enrich and sustain the British broadcasting industry.


  18.  VLV welcomes the proposal in the recent Green Paper to reconstitute the BBC Governors as an outward-facing BBC Trust, although as will be seen from our response above and from our response to the Green Paper, we have reservations about how some of the new arrangements will be implemented.

  19.  We welcome the positives steps the Governors have already taken to improve their relations with the public, including the commissioning of independent research , the establishment of a separate office and an independent unit to handle complaints. They have also moved to strengthen the roles of the Broadcasting Councils and English National Forum. VLV also welcomes the move to set up in some specific cases, independent inquiries such as that into the BBC's reporting of the Arab-Israeli conflict.


  20.  Many of the Lords Committee's concerns appear to be related to the editorial responsibilities and independence of the BBC. In VLV's view these should continue to remain independent of Government or of any outside regulator, including Ofcom or a possible new Broadcasting Council . The BBC should continue to be accountable to the public through its Board of Governors or through the proposed new Trust if it is established under the BBC's new Royal Charter.

  21.  VLV's concern is to ensure that, in line with the Government's intention outlined in the Green Paper, any change in the arrangements for governing the BBC shall safeguard the Corporation's independence and its traditional remit. They should also reinforce its duty to serve the public interest and maintain its accountability to licence fee payers.

  22.  Finally, VLV considers it most important that the principal source of funding for the BBC should continue to come from a universally imposed licence fee which is hypothecated to the BBC's sole use.

October 2005

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