Get charter: why a strong cast is needed to set the BBC's future

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The Independent Online

The Communications Act finally made it to the statute book this summer, after three long years. Did weary media policymakers take the opportunity to relax and unwind?

Not a chance. The media industry abhors a vacuum and the past two months have been spent plotting and planning the "reviews".

The biggest of them all is the BBC charter review, to be concluded by 2006. The new multimedia regulator, Ofcom, will publish its own review next year of public service broadcasting which, according to its boss, Stephen Carter, will have "a major input" into the Government's charter review.

Ofcom is not the only organisation that wants a say. BSkyB's Tony "I come here not to bury the BBC but to save it" Ball used his Edinburgh lecture last month to set out his proposals. At last week's Trades Union Congress, delegates voted their continuing support for the licence fee. And the Conservative Party and the Institute for Public Policy Research are carrying out separate reviews.

Meanwhile, the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee will be conducting an inquiry that will give its MPs the opportunity to put forward their own proposals.

But the need for subsequent, pre-legislative scrutiny of the draft Charter is clear.

The review is taking place during a period of unprecedented change for the UK's media. The licensing and funding that support public service broadcasting are challenged by long-term technical and market changes, such as: increased viewer choice and control of channels; the rise of new interactive services; the growth of niche channels; and the increasing importance of the internet.

The Communications Act is the first stage in the Government's programme of reform to prepare the UK for the digital age; the charter review is the second step. It will determine what the BBC is and what it can do up to 2016.

Traditionally, little parliamentary time has been allocated for MPs and Lords to scrutinise the BBC's charter. Given this potential lack of debate, it would be wise to follow a recent precedent. Shortly after the publication of the draft Communications Bill, the Government announced its support for a scrutiny committee with members drawn from both the Commons and the Lords.

Lord Puttnam (pictured) led this committee, which studied the draft Bill over the summer of 2002. It received over 200 written submissions and also heard oral evidence, notably from the Secretary of State for Media, Tessa Jowell, and the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, Patricia Hewitt. The final report, "Making a Good Bill Better", recommended 180 amendments; 140 were immediately accepted by the Government.

The report had several important outcomes. It achieved the remarkable feat of being welcomed by all the big players, including the Government, despite some thorny proposals. The committee itself was a model of parliamentary scrutiny. It produced a well-informed study setting out clear amendments, and provided MPs with background information while setting up the remaining issues for debate - not least of which was the report's call for a public interest test for cross-media ownership decisions.

In the words of Lord Puttnam: "Communications and the media, and the way in which they are regulated, have a profound effect on our democracy, our economy, our culture, our entertainment and our education - in short, on the way we live our lives."

The BBC is at the heart of the British media landscape. The second stage in the Government's reform of media and communications deserves as much attention as the first. It is essential that Parliament be given the time and the resources to consider the future role of the BBC as an independent, impartial public service organisation. In what will probably be the most far-reaching review yet, a joint scrutiny committee would be best placed to go through the charter in minute detail. Ultimately, it would make a good charter better.

Jamie Cowling is a media research fellow at the Institute for Public Policy Research

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