Draft charter forces BBC to clean up act

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The Independent Online

Media Correspondent

The BBC was reluctantly further brought under the control of the Government yesterday with the publication of the long-awaited draft charter requiring stricter standards on taste and decency.

The charter puts far greater pressure on the BBC governors to regulate and monitor the corporation's output, giving them a far more explicit regulatory role to represent the public interest.

The draft charter, which is due to come into effect in the spring, also guarantees the corporation's licence fee - at least until before the end of 2001, when it will be reviewed.

The BBC has been seen by its critics as making strenuous attempts over recent years to ensure that the licence fee was retained under the terms of the new charter, primarily with the appointment of John Birt as director- general.

The new document, which will replace the last charter granted in 1981, also requires the BBC to draw up an impartiality code for the first time.

It calls on the corporation to "treat controversial subjects with due accuracy and impartiality, both in the corporation's news services and in the more general field of programmes dealing with matters of public policy or of political or industrial controversy".

It is understood that Virginia Bottomley, the Secretary of State for Heritage, fought off rightwing moves to make the impartiality requirement statutory in favour of the tougher wording in the draft charter.

Backbenchers, however, are expected to continue to complain that the charter and its accompanying agreement carry no legal force. Stephen Dorrell, the Health Secretary, criticised the popular hospital-based BBC1 drama Casualty for a scene earlier this month in which a character blamed a patient's death on government health reforms.

In another move showing its concern about the issue, Conservative Central Office re-established its media monitoring unit earlier this year to tape programmes and spot possible political bias.

The new document, however, does not require the BBC to dilute the content of programmes shown immediately after the 9pm watershed. Another change to the old 1981 charter is that the corporation makes an explicit reference to the BBC's independence in editorial and managerial matters - up until now, this principle has been an unwritten convention.

There is also a new commitment to regional broadcasting.