The BBC’s journalistic independence could be threatened if the National Audit Office (NAO) is allowed to investigate the corporation at will, James Purnell, the former minister who became a high-profile BBC recruit, has warned.
Maria Miller, the Culture Secretary, said the NAO should be given unlimited access to the BBC’s accounts to avoid a repeat of the scandal over excessive pay-offs.
But Mr Purnell, a former Labour Culture Secretary who is now the BBC’s director of strategy, argued that politicians could use the implicit threat of an intervention by the public spending watchdog to intimidate the corporation’s journalists.
Speaking at the Royal Televison Society conference in Cambridge, Mr Purnell said the BBC must be free to place politicians and people in power “under tough questioning without looking over its shoulder.”
Mr Purnell said the BBC was already closely “enmeshed” with Whitehall. Funding for the World Service has been transferred from the Foreign Office to the BBC, under the last licence fee deal. The BBC is also paying £300 million from the licence fee to fund the roll-out of broadband, under a deal with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.
Whilst the BBC was open to discussing a closer working relationship with the NAO, Mr Purnell said there was a “danger” that placing the corporation under further government obligations could interfere with its independence.
The BBC could be set on a collision course with the Government after Mrs Miller told the Cambridge conference: “I want a system where the NAO can look at any area of concern without hindrance or delay.”
Mr Purnell insisted that the split governance model of the BBC Executive and a Trust, headed by Lord Patten, was not broken. “We all agree that the current system can be made to work much better over the next three years (before Charter Renewal),” he said. The BBC has promised to introduce an improved governance structure after an internal review.
Tessa Jowell, the Culture Secretary who established the BBC Trust in 2006, as a replacement for the widely discredited Board of Governors following the Hutton Report, said the body could survive. “The Trust needs to become more assertive and have much more definition over the way that it represents the licence-fee payer,” she told the conference.
BBC sources said reports that Lord Patten could quit the Trust chairmanship before the end of his term in 2015 were purely speculative.