Memorandum by the Voice of the Listener
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
servicesstressing 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
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
serviceand 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 eventif no
other free-to-air broadcaster wished to bid for the rights to
cover itbut this seems an unlikely situation in which the
BBC might be forced to bid for an event that few people wanted
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.
THE BBC WORLD
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.
THE BBC AS
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.