Media: Analysis - Who's watching the watchmen?

DID DIXONS really sell second-hand goods as new? Do Ford Mondeos sometimes lean to the left? Did Airtours arrange holidays in hotels surrounded by barbed wire and located in bandit country?

The BBC's consumer programme Watchdog said the answers were yes - starting an attack by Dixons, Ford and Airtours on Anne Robinson and her Watchdog colleagues, which is likely to end as a broadside against the core of the BBC, particularly its self-regulation and its board of governors.

Self-regulation is a subject that makes BBC bosses uncomfortable. They know it is open to criticism, and that criticism may eventually motivate government to remove the governors, and replace them with an external regulator - all highly unpalatable for an organisation that has grown used to drawing up its own rules on how programme-makers should behave, and being the judge and jury on whether those rules are properly implemented.

The Watchdog conflict highlighted the issue perfectly. The three aggrieved companies were constantly rebuffed in their efforts to meet the BBC governors - the rationale being that the BBC's own internal Programme Complaints Unit (PCU) is there specifically to deal with grievances against programmes.

And yet a contradictory element lies at the heart of the PCU. At its head is a most competent and meticulous man, Fraser Steel. He is expected to act in an independent manner, and to adjudicate on complaints against BBC programmes without being influenced by the programme-makers' interests.

By all accounts, he does this job splendidly, and finds for the complainant in about 12 per cent of the hundreds of cases that go to the PCU each year. The problem lies in Mr Steel's second responsibility. When companies take their complaints to the external Broadcasting Standards Commission, they may employ expensive barristers. The BBC puts forward Mr Steel to argue the corporation's side - he is independent, but he must represent the BBC to the outside world.

Mr Steel's uneasy role is mirrored higher up in the organisation in the responsibilities of the governors themselves. This small band of the great and the good is often dismissed as a bunch of "nominated amateurs" and yet, in theory at least, they have the strongest regulatory powers in the business. If they are unhappy with a BBC programme, they can prevent it being broadcast. The Broadcasting Standards Commission does not have such power, and neither does the Independent Television Commission, which regulates commercial channels.

But the governors, like Mr Steel, have a dual role. They hold the BBC to account. But they are also custodians of the BBC. The two elements are not necessarily incompatible, but they certainly produce a muddled remit which confuses outsiders.

Unsurprisingly, the system comes under periodic attack - and when New Labour came to power, it seemed that it might shake things up. The party's manifesto promised a single regulatory body for the whole of the broadcasting industry.

But it was soon clear that New Labour would not rush into any radical changes. The BBC chairman, Sir Christopher Bland, made a speech last year which hinted that a deal had been done to keep regulation of the BBC "firmly and squarely" with the governors. Chris Smith, meanwhile, has said he has no appetite for a all-powerful, monolithic regulator of everything from competition to content in the broadcasting business.

And, as the BBC is keen to point out, there is a convincing argument against a single content regulator. Who would such a powerful body report to? If it were the Government, and any statutory body does naturally report to government, then Britain would have the possibility of the content of programmes being subject to political influence.

But arguments against a single content regulator do not amount to a case for maintaining the status quo at the BBC. A lawyer sympathetic to Dixons, Ford and Airtours says their next step should be to lobby Chris Smith. He might add that if they really want to send some shock waves through the corporate centre, they might try convincing the Culture Secretary that BBC programmes should be regulated by a truly independent external body.

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