Sunday 18 March 2018

BBC white paper: UK government to lay out 'major overhaul' in charter renewal

Patrick Foster

The BBC will be forced to open its books to the UK government’s spending watchdog, allow ministers to appoint nearly half the members of its new governing board, and hand over regulatory powers to Ofcom, under a stringent new governance regime.

John Whittingdale, the culture secretary, will today call for far greater transparency over how the BBC uses its £3.7 (€4.7) billion of licence fee income, including ordering the corporation to name stars paid more than £450,000 (€570,000) as he warns that the broadcaster must never again be allowed to mark its own homework.

Under the strict new regulatory regime, the National Audit Office will become the BBC’s financial auditor, with free rein to examine the corporation’s books, while Ofcom, the broadcasting watchdog, will become its official regulator, ensuring independent oversight of complaints about impartiality and accuracy for the first time.

The plans will be contained in a white paper on the future size and scope of the BBC.

In proposals that will be bitterly contested by the BBC, Mr Whittingdale will grant ministers the power to appoint six members of the corporation’s new governing board, which will replace the BBC Trust, which is to be scrapped at the end of the year.

The BBC will have the right to nominate up to eight members of the body, and can therefore ensure it holds the balance of votes, but executives at the corporation believe that doing so would create a board that would become too large and unwieldy.

The BBC’s allies will claim that having six government appointees on the board, which will oversee the corporation’s day-to-day operations, calls into doubt the broadcaster’s independence from government.

But Mr Whittingdale will insist that the panel will not have hands-on control over the corporation’s output, and will deal only with high-level editorial priorities, and budgets.

The corporation has won a number of significant concessions in what its director-general, Lord Hall of Birkenhead, last night said had been a “hard fought” process, yielding some proposals with which he would “respectfully disagree”.

The BBC will be awarded an eleven-year Royal Charter, guaranteeing licence fee funding until 2028. Although there will be a “health check” in five years’ time, the corporation fought off a bid to allow ministers to assess its programmes and services during this mid-term review, which will instead focus solely on setting the level of the licence fee for the second half of the charter period, and on whether the new governance arrangements are working.

BBC white paper - key steps for the corporation

  • The BBC will get an 11-year charter, with a “health check” half way
  • The BBC Trust will be scrapped, with Ofcom taking over regulatory duties
  • The National Audit Office will become its financial auditor
  • A powerful new unitary board will govern the BBC, with six government appointees and up to eight members appointed by the BBC
  • The BBC will have to disclose the names of stars paid more than £450,000, and release salaries in broad bands. This is expected to capture around 10 presenters and performers

Here's why everyone was talking about the BBC at the TV BAFTAS

Wolf Hall director Peter Kosminsky kicked off the drama, with his fired-up speech, and James Nesbitt, Ian Hislop and Mark Rylance also chipped in when they were on stage.

"This is really scary stuff folks," he said. "Not something I thought I'd see in my lifetime in this country.

"It is not their BBC, it's your BBC. There will be no more Wolf Hall, no more groundbreaking Dispatches.

"We should stand up and fight," he added. "If we don't, blink and it will be gone."

Thomas Cromwell in Wolf Hall, said: "We're a nation of storytellers, we're admired around the world for it and long may it live and long may it be a privilege to the people here without having to watch commercials."

Actor James Nesbitt added: "All these films, writers, directors, cast and crew are able to do what they do as well as they do because of the BBC.

"Do not strip it away. Please protect it, let's cherish it."

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