BBC `too open to political influence'

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The Independent Online
The way the BBC is governed urgently needs to be changed to ensure that it is truly independent and that no government is able to dominate it, according to an independent think-tank.

A paper by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), released on the eve of a parliamentary debate on the BBC's future, says that as one of the country's largest quangos the corporation is far too open to political influence. It says that it should be able to pass the "Berlusconi test" - a reference to the way Silvio Berlusconi, the former Italian prime minister, was able to attack the independence of his country's state broadcaster, RAI.

The IPPR, set up as an alternative to the free-market think-tanks, also attacks the Government's White Paper on the BBC, the subject of today's debate, for failing to address this issue.

It says that BBC governors should be elected rather than government approved, and their deliberations should be made public. They are described by the paper as being too close to the BBC to be impartial and too inward looking.

It says that since the governors are "unrepresentative, unaccountable and . . . with no clear mandate", they cannot function properly. Instead, they should act as a supervisory board of the BBC but be themselves regulated by an outside body. It says thatthe BBC should not be allowed to wield its huge power without being properly responsible.

It argues for the BBC to be split into two units: the commercial side and the public-service division funded by the licence fee. This is a view shared by the Independent Television Commission and a number of commercial broadcasters who have been lobbyingthe Department of National Heritage. If it happened, commercial activities would be carried out by a clearly separate limited company. This open split would ensure that there was no cross subsidy by the publicly funded side.

The paper also urges that other competitors to the BBC should be free to bid for the rights to the programmes and products which BBC Worldwide (its commercial side) is currently exploiting. Last year, the commission argued for something similar, saying that its commercial operations should be franchised out.

The IPPR says this split would help resolve conflicts of interest - there is a fear that the corporation is being urged by the Government into international expansion but that these may not produce profits that benefit the licence-fee payer.

In the new model for appointing BBC governors, it proposes setting up an electoral college appointed by viewers and listeners formed together in "broadcasting societies" and delegates from the House of Commons National Heritage Select Committee.

Once chosen, the governors should keep in touch with popular opinion by meeting citizen's juries, people chosen from the electoral register at random, to discuss key issues, including matters of content such as the depiction of sex and violence.

The publication of the paper comes at a time when there is unhappiness among critics about the way in which the BBC intends to consult. The future of the General Advisory Council - which advises the corporation's top managers and governors on broad matters of public interest - is not clear.

t The Future of the BBC, Commerce, Consumers and Governance; by Richard Collins and James Purnell; IPPR, 30-32 Southampton Road, London, WC2E 7RA; £4.95.