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Ex-Sony, Pearson chiefs tipped to oversee BBC. So that's all good, then

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Former Sony boss Sir Howard Stringer and Dame Marjorie Scardino, ex-CEO of publishing powerhouse Pearson, have been tipped to head the BBC Trust – the oversight org that performs the job of the old BBC Board of Governors.

A report in the Sunday Times suggests Prime Minister David Cameron “wants a woman” to lead the trust, and the paper says American-born Brit citizen Scardino is in the running – as is ex-Wall Street Journal Europe editor Baroness Wheatcroft. Sir Howard is also in line to take the top job, it was rumoured over the weekend.

Whoever is picked will replace Lord Patten, who resigned as the trust's chairman last week due to health issues.

The same S. Times story reports comments from Culture Minister Ed Vaizey that the trust’s structure – rather than personnel – is the problem, given that it has to act in two contradictory roles: as both the defender of the BBC, and the public’s “watchdog” over it.

The trust has more than 70 support staff, and a reported annual budget of some £10m, while the trustees wear BBC passes.

“The BBC Trust was set up by the last government [to perform] an Ofcom role with the BBC, not trying to be cheerleader of the BBC. That is important. The BBC Trust needs to remind people that its role is more of a regulator,” said Vaizey.

He’s got a point – and the narrowly defined organisational structure set up in the BBC's 2006 Royal Charter leaves the question of who exactly chairs the trust's meetings rather rather moot.

Take, for example, the issue of fat cat pay and extravagant payoffs for top executives. Parliament's grandstanding culture select committee MPs blasted trustees this year for permitting the broadcaster's bigwigs to walk out the door with vast redundancy payments.

One such payout included £450,000 to George Entwistle after his 54-day stint as director general – a severance package that paid his legal and even PR bills. But the trust isn’t permitted, by law, to intervene, and the BBC simply tells the oversight org to get stuffed.

The trust was set up after the previous Labour government succeeded in decapitating the BBC following the publication of the Hutton Inquiry – forcing the removal of the chairman of the board of governors Gavyn Davies, and director general Greg Dyke the same day. So much for independence.

In the aftermath, the Blair-led government conceded it had overreacted a little – and the subsequent Royal Charter, which is renewed every ten years and steers the broadcaster, created a kind of BBC-owned quango to replace the Board of Govs, instead.

The resulting BBC Trust is able to spaff money on research (its Audience Panels always seem to highlight how well loved the BBC is) and is encumbered with 2012-ish duties such as “sustaining citizenship and civil society”. [*]

But this structure leaves the BBC operationally free to do what it wants. Only projects costing more than £50m must be referred to the trust – yet even with that function, it failed to put the brakes on the runaway DMI, a utopian digital media storage system that everyone except the trust realised had jumped the tracks.

Reports last year suggested the coalition government wants to hand the trust's regulatory function to Ofcom – something which has strong support from some Labour opposition figures – particularly because the gov watchdog can be relied upon to battle for the BBC.

Is an Ofcom that decides the top BBC execs' pay really likely? Be careful what you wish for, folks. ®

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