Broadcasting: Goodbye BBC governors, hello trustees

Jane Thynne asks if we'll miss 'a couple of mates of the minister's and a bunch of people from Wales'

"Name three BBC governors". It's a question which would stump contestants on any quiz programme, and even long-serving figures in broadcasting were hard put to name more than a few, once the news of their demise was announced last week. "A couple of mates of the minister's and a bunch of people from Wales," volunteered one senior figure. So, when they are replaced by a board of independent "trustees", just how much will they be missed?

"Name three BBC governors". It's a question which would stump contestants on any quiz programme, and even long-serving figures in broadcasting were hard put to name more than a few, once the news of their demise was announced last week. "A couple of mates of the minister's and a bunch of people from Wales," volunteered one senior figure. So, when they are replaced by a board of independent "trustees", just how much will they be missed?

"I don't think the board of governors needed to be changed," said Dame Pauline Neville-Jones, a former BBC governor. "This endless debate is incredibly damaging. You cannot go on putting the system of governance in doubt. We as a society will end up destroying a very major asset in the BBC."

"It's political, isn't it?" added Greg Dyke, who - as a former director general - certainly should know. "It's still all up for grabs. I don't think these proposals, as they are, are sustainable, both because of political opposition and because I'm not at all sure they make sense. I don't think they'll work."

It was the criticism in the Hutton report that existing BBC governors were too close to the management which led Tessa Jowell, the Culture Secretary, to describe "the dual role of managing the BBC but also holding it to account" as "unsustainable".

Her new proposals are aimed at making a clearer separation between those who regulate and those who manage the BBC. Under the proposed system the BBC Trust (though not legally a trust) will be charged with regulating, and a management board - most likely headed by Mark Thompson, the current director general - will be responsible for day-to-day running of the corporation.

Trustees will set performance targets and remits for BBC services and ensure that corporation executives stick to them. They will communicate with licence-fee payers and find out what they think, as well as having the responsibility for hiring and firing the director general. They will oversee budgets and strategies and hold management to account.

There are more radical suggestions that the trust's meetings should be open to the public or be broadcast on the internet, and that voting records should be made public. It's a proposal described by Dame Pauline as "absolutely crackers".

"We don't want people subjected to public humiliation," she said. "Who is going to take a job like that? And what about responsibility for the money - in a normal trust, the trustees have the responsibility to deal with external auditors. There's so much detail missing."

There are also suggestions that the trust should include more members with an established broadcasting background, a proposal welcomed by John Ware, reporter on the Panorama special on the Hutton report which criticised the role of the governors during that time.

"It is absolutely vital to include more people with media experience," he says. "I per-sonally would rather have experienced broadcasters sitting in judgement on me than a bunch of Ofcom people sitting on leather sofas and sipping coffee in a huge building in the City - regulators who have shown a predisposition towards high cost nit-picking."

But Jocelyn Hay, of the campaigning pressure group, Voice of the Viewer and Listener, said the lay members were also essential on such a body. "Media figures don't have the same life and perspective as the average viewer. You need intelligent people with the nous and courage to speak up on media issues and not to be cowed. But this proposal is very much a model for commercial corporate governance - for example, suggesting a non-executive chairman could chair the executive board. It has to be the director general and to suggest otherwise is ridiculous! The BBC is an irreplaceable organisation and radical solutions based on corporate life are not right."

Most criticisms of the old board centred around the problem of its dual role as "both a cheerleader and a regulator" of the BBC. Yet it was not clear how the new trustees would escape that dilemma, even with less involvement in day-to-day running of the BBC. It is also unclear exactly what sort of regulator a trust would become.

The big event of the Green Paper was the licence fee. As Tony Blair might put it, the relationship between the BBC and the Government has included a fair amount of crockery-throwing recently. Renewing vows over the licence fee represents a major gesture of reconciliation.

More than its regulation, it is the continuation of the licence fee 10 years into the future, when conditions may be very different, which will ensure the BBC's freedom. "The licence fee is really going to safeguard the independence of the BBC," said Dame Pauline Neville-Jones.

But, she pointed out, there are hidden costs in the small print.

"I'm not wild that the BBC is going to have to spend licence-fee income on the digital revolution. The Government wants to cop out on the expenditure and clean up later with the sale of the frequencies. There's got to be a refund there."

Jocelyn Hay agreed: "There are immense implications for licence payers in making the BBC take responsibility for digital roll-out. Why should these costs be off-loaded on to the BBC when the Treasury will reap a handsome reward from the sell-off of analogue frequencies?"

What the Green Paper says...

Charter renewal

The BBC will continue to be established by a Royal Charter - the next one should last from 1 January 2007 to 31 December 2016.

The licence fee

The licence fee will continue. But there will be a review, before the end of the next Charter period, on whether there is a case for other methods of funding the BBC beyond 2016.

The way the BBC is run

The Board of Governors is to be replaced by a "new, transparent and accountable BBC Trust to oversee the corporation". The Trust will be responsible for the licence fee and for making sure the BBC fulfils its public service obligations. An executive board will be responsible for day-to-day management. This will put "much-needed daylight" between the roles of running the BBC, and ensuring the BBC is well run.

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