The scandalous way in which huge pay-offs were signed off for top executives was not the only defect in the running of the BBC to emerge from the Commons Public Accounts Committee this week. Another concerned the role of the BBC Trust and the evident confusion about its remit. And while new arrangements are now in place for severance pay at the Corporation, the Trust – give or take some adjustments – seems set to sail serenely on.
This is not, to put it mildly, a satisfactory situation. The BBC Trust, which came into being in 2007 under the BBC’s new Royal Charter, was a response to what was deemed the Corporation’s failure of governance in the run-up to the Iraq war. But it was flawed from the start. As the public face of the BBC and its cheerleader, and simultaneously the defender of the licence-payers’ interests, it could not but look both ways. Monday’s committee session showed where that inbuilt contradiction had led. Essentially, as unhappy MPs pointed out, licence-payers were left without a place at the table.
Because of the turmoil in which the Trust was set up, there is little will in the Government or the BBC for any restructuring before the Charter comes up for renewal in 2017. In a pre-emptive move, the BBC today announced a review of its governance structures, to simplify and clarify, while the Culture Secretary mooted, in a speech to the Royal Television Society, that the National Audit Office might take a “quasi-regulatory” role with the BBC.
We understand the desire to avoid new ructions. The BBC needs time, once again, to settle down. Even more, though, it needs effective goverance, and the licence-payer needs a louder voice. If the Trust cannot provide this – and its inability to date is proven – a better mechanism has to be found. Four years – until the new Charter is negotiated – is too long to wait.