BBC chief invites inquisition from MPs

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The Independent Online
BBC mandarins, eager to appear more publicly accountable and to counter suspicions harboured by ministers that they have succumbed to commercialism, announced yesterday that they are prepared to face an annual grilling in Parliament.

Sir Christopher Bland, the chairman of the BBC, invited the Select Committee on National Heritage to quiz him and his senior colleagues each autumn when the corporation publishes its annual report.

Sir Christopher also stressed that public-service values remain at the heart of the BBC as it approaches its 75th anniversary in October. This was obviously a reply to Chris Smith, the National Heritage Secretary, who has voiced concern about creeping commercialism.

Delivering a lecture to the Royal Television Society, Sir Christopher said the BBC's unique form of funding - the licence fee - conferred a special responsibility to service all sections of the community and preserve Britain's public service ecology.

On the question of accountability, he said: "It seems to me that the annual report might provide a useful and precise agenda for an autumn appearance by the BBC in front of the select committee, and that the resultant discussions might be usefully focused and constructive as a result."

The Consumers' Association warned yesterday that the BBC could find it increasingly difficult to defend the licence fee as the digital revolution unfolds and its own commercial activities expand.

In a report, the watchdog body called for a single regulator for the whole telecommunications sector, including television, radio, print media, telephone companies and the Post Office.

Benet Middleton, a senior policy researcher with the association, said the BBC's commercial interests were not subject to any external scrutiny beyond Parliament.

The BBC's governors, he pointed out, "essentially police themselves".

A spokeswoman for the Department of National Heritage said yesterday that the Government has no plans to alter the way the BBC is regulated. But Labour did issue a pledge in its election manifesto to set up some type of "Ofcom" body along the lines of the other watchdogs. "It is something that the Government is considering in terms of how to take it forward," she said.

Steven Barnett, senior lecturer in communications at the University of Westminster and a leading authority on the politics of broadcasting, said: "Accountability has become the big buzzword in debates about the future of the BBC, but different people mean different things when they talk about this."

He believes there should be a more democratic and open way of appointing and appraising the governors, but he is opposed to a single regulator, posing the critical question: "Who would guard the guards?"

t Euro-MPs have approved new rules obliging television broadcasters to ensure that at least 51 per cent of their output is of European origin "wherever practicable".

The directive, designed to stem a flood-tide of American shows and films, was hailed as a triumph by Labour MEP and media spokeswoman Carole Tongue, who predicted thousands of new jobs in the European television industry.