Ofcom lacks the competence to take over BBC governance, says watchdog's new chief

Sharon White will 'draw a line in the sand' amid calls for an extended role

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The Independent Online

Ofcom lacks the competence to take over the governance of the BBC, should the BBC Trust be abolished, the media watchdog’s chief executive has claimed.

Sharon White, the new Ofcom head, said she would “draw a line in the sand” over suggestions that the watchdog could extend its current role regulating BBC programmes for harm and offence, to complete oversight of the corporation’s activities.

With the BBC Trust apparently doomed, Chancellor George Osborne has indicated his support for Ofcom taking over the governance of the BBC. The Government’s Green Paper on the BBC’s future last week listed bringing BBC regulation under Ofcom’s remit as one possible option.

Sharon White could not see Ofcom taking BBC Trust's 'core job' (Getty)

Ms White, the senior civil servant in charge of implementing Mr Osborne’s cuts programme before being poached by Ofcom, said she could not envisage the watchdog performing the “core job” of the BBC Trust, which involves auditing the BBC and measuring how it was performing against its targets and budgets.

“I would put a line in the sand between (regulation) and the core responsibilities of the governance function. That is not a responsibility we have the competence to discharge,” Ms White told the House of Commons culture, media and sport select committee.

“I do not see Ofcom setting strategy or budget audit functions. Those decisions need to rest in the leadership of the BBC.”

If the government insisted on extending Ofcom’s responsibilities “we will do the best possible job,” she said.

But Ms White warned that Ofcom lacked the resources to take on the handling of 250,000 complaints which the BBC receives on an annual basis, alongside its existing responsibilities over the telecoms industry.

The Green Paper proposed three possible futures for the regulation of the BBC - switching to Ofcom, strengthening the existing Trust, or the creation of a new, independent media regulator dubbed “OfBeeb”.

Bringing the BBC under Ofcom’s remit “is attractive because Ofcom is already known to be an effective regulator, and it fully understands the broadcast and wider media and telecommunications sector,” the government report said.

Ms White was questioned about measures proposed by the Prime Minister designed to strengthen Ofcom’s role in taking action against channels which broadcast extremist content.

Senior figures in broadcasting have criticised proposals, backed by Home Secretary Theresa May, to allow Ofcom to vet British television programmes before transmission, as impractical and unjustified.

Questioned on the issue of extremist content, Ms White said: “We haven’t found we have been unable to act because of (lack of) legislation.”

Ms White also asked about a possible separation of BT from Openreach, the national broadband network which it owns. Gavin Patterson, BT chief executive, said separation, the subject of an Ofcom review, could lead to “10 years of litigation and arguments”. Ms White said: “I can’t say I’m easily intimidated. Our drive is what is going to be the best possible deal for the consumer.”