Ministers plan to cut power of BBC board

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The Independent Online

The powers of the BBC's governors are to be reduced, government officials said yesterday, reacting to Greg Dyke's decision to move the evening news to 10pm.

The powers of the BBC's governors are to be reduced, government officials said yesterday, reacting to Greg Dyke's decision to move the evening news to 10pm.

A source close to Chris Smith, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, said: "The way Dyke [the director general] rushed the move through the Board of Governors makes a mockery of the BBC's self-regulation. It took everyone by surprise, including Chris Smith." A proposal to cut the power of the governors will appear in a White Paper to be published before the end of the year.

The source added: "Chris had believed the more feisty BBC governors would resist the decision to move the news." Mr Smith had been expecting to raise the issue at a meeting with Mr Dyke in two weeks, well before it was due to go to the Board of Governors.

In the event, Mr Dyke and his old friend, the BBC chairman, Sir Christopher Bland, called an emergency meeting of the governors on Monday at which they supported the Dyke-Bland strategy. Disregard for Mr Smith's views was underlined when Sir Christopher dismissed him as "a licence-fee payer ... entitled to his view".

Other government figures are said to be incensed by the BBC's move, which puts its news head-to-head with the reinstated ITN News at Ten.

At the moment the BBC governors monitor all issues concerning strategy, from standards of taste and decency to whether the licence fee is being misused for commercial purposes.

Mr Dyke's rushing through the 10pm news decision reinforced a view that the governors often rubber-stamp rather than acting as an independent regulatory check on the corporation. Ministers are considering restricting their powers to internal BBC editorial and efficiency issues. Standards and competition issues are likely to be given to a new independent body regulating broadcasting as a whole and referred to in the industry as Ofcom.

The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats are just as frustrated as Labour by the BBC's handling of the move of the 9pm news and are expected to support a reduction of the governors' powers.

Commercial broadcasters also back the move. One said yesterday: "By rushing through the news decision they have signed their own death warrants."

The BBC is expected to lobby against any big changes to the way it is regulated but in the eyes of many its case has been undermined by its behaviour in moving the news.

An ITV executive said: "It is madness when a commercial company like ITV has to spend a year jumping through regulatory hoops to move its news when the BBC, a public-service broadcaster, can do whatever it likes with no external checks or balances whatsoever." Last week government officialsagreed with the ITV view.

Another process is being implemented by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport that will also strengthen external regulation of the BBC. A commercial-television executive said: "In future the Government will require the BBC to publish any proposals it has on new services or channels, which means critics will have a chance to lobby government and possibly prevent them going ahead."