Ofcom's head Ed may yet run the Beeb: UK gov 'mulls axing BBC Trust'
If at first you don't succeed at becoming the director-general,
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Is Ofcom boss Ed Richards' middle name "Lucky"?
The UK watchdog's supremo could yet end up running the BBC without leaving his desk at Southwark Bridge. Last year, the former Labour policy wonk – who helped create Ofcom – applied to get the top job at the Beeb, only to lose out to George Entwistle. Now it's claimed the government wants Ofcom to take over more responsibility for the corporation - and abolish the BBC Trust altogether.
Changing the regulatory structure of the BBC would require rewriting the broadcaster's Royal Charter; something last undertaken by the Labour government after decapitating the BBC's chairman and director-general in 2004.
Today's charter replaced the old Board of Governors with a rebranded BBC Trust – an overseeing body that's really more like an internal committee with the outward appearance of independence. Its formal duties involve "setting the overall strategic direction of the BBC, including its priorities, and in exercising a general oversight of the work of the executive board. The trust will perform these roles in the public interest, particularly the interest of licence-fee payers".
However the Sunday Times reports the Tory-led Coalition government now believes that arrangement of oversight has failed. It's said that ministers feel the trust is compromised, in that it bangs the drum for the BBC with one hand, and with the other it's supposed to conduct impartial inquiries on behalf of the people who fund it with a tax on receiving live telly.
Ofcom already regulates the BBC for taste and decency; axing the trust would move the watchdog into monitoring the Beeb's editorial impartiality and its strategic direction.
Given that the BBC Trust has to represent both the poacher and the gamekeeper, it was in an impossible situation to begin with. Yet with 70 staff and around £10m reportedly at the body's disposal, it was often either passive or completely absent during scandals that engulfed the corporation.
Not surprisingly, former Labour Culture Secretary Ben Bradshaw welcomed the move, saying the trust had exhausted politicians' patience. “The BBC should have nothing to fear from independent regulation,” he told the Sunday newspaper. “The trust does not really act as an effective regulator or an effective cheerleader because it is expected to do both jobs in one.”
But be careful what you wish for, BBC knockers: will an outside overseer really work as well as hoped? In recent years the corporation has mirrored the spectacular botch jobs that engulfed other apparently independently audited public services such as the NHS and social services. Yet, as with quangos and councils, executives at the BBC paid themselves more to do less than before – while ordinary staff found themselves on pay freezes by comparison and short-term contracts.
And many of the BBC's own goals were avoidable. For example, the corporation spent a small fortune fighting the release of a document that was already public, and bats away the most innocuous questions – such as the identity of the judges of the Radio 2 Folk Awards – using expensive lawyers. It refuses to disclose BBC viewing and listening figures broken down by social class – which, we've heard, show that among the C2, D and E demographics the BBC is becoming marginal.
Yet how would moving responsibility from one part of the old boys' network to another enhance transparency or accountability? Will Ofcom initiate investigations into the broadcaster's handling of freedom-of-information requests or fat cat pay? If it takes a proactive role, the issue becomes highly politicised. If it doesn't, then Ofcom will merely be replicating the inertness of the BBC Trust. ®
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