The chairman of the BBC Trust has warned politicians to back off the broadcaster and called for the public to be given a greater say in deciding its destiny.
Rona Fairhead, who became the head of the BBC’s governing body last October, said the future of the corporation – which is facing intense pressure to downsize from both the Government and commercial rivals – must be decided by evidence and “not by prejudice and not by vested interest”.
Ms Fairhead said the BBC should be given the resources to keep updating its “venerable” iPlayer online service and warned it would never be able to afford to make a show on the scale of the HBO hit Game of Thrones.
In an outspoken essay, published by The Independent, she complains of MPs attempting to interfere in BBC affairs unduly, saying there has been “a growing tendency in recent years for select committees to question BBC executives about detailed editorial decisions”.
Referring to the BBC Trust’s public-consultation findings on its future governance, Ms Fairhead said: “The public see a need for independent scrutiny and regulation, but they want this done by a separate body representing licence fee payers, not by politicians.”
Her comments will be seen as a strategic response to growing pressure on the broadcaster since the general election. The Culture Secretary, John Whittingdale, has launched a Green Paper on the BBC, a “root and branch” review which will examine its future scale and funding. Many rival media organisations are campaigning for it to be reduced in size and question the validity of its licence fee-based model.
Ms Fairhead’s argument also follows reports this weekend that the Justice Secretary, Michael Gove, has argued within the Cabinet for non-payment of the licence fee to be decriminalised – which some fear could increase evasion and badly hit the broadcaster’s income.
The public service broadcaster is dealing with “ever-tighter funding constraints”, Ms Fairhead said, and is facing “arguably the greatest external challenges in its lifetime”. Although she accepts that “the status quo is not an option”, she argued that changes “should happen through a proper debate where the public’s voice is heard loud and clear”.
She added: “The BBC’s future is simply too important to be settled behind closed doors.”
Lord Hall, the BBC’s Director-General, last month had to defend secret negotiations with the Chancellor, George Osborne, which led to the broadcaster taking on the £750m cost of giving free licences to the over-75s in return for being allowed to increase the fee in line with inflation. Lord Hall claimed the behind-closed-doors deal had given the BBC “financial stability”.
The licence fee was set five years ago after heated private talks between the then Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, and the former Director-General Mark Thompson. It led to the BBC losing 16 per cent of its funding in real terms.
Following unfavourable comparisons of the broadcaster’s output with the best American-produced drama, Ms Fairhead warned that the most expensive US shows were well out of the BBC’s price range. “There are clearly examples – House of Cards, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones spring to mind – across a narrow range of genres where the US system produces some extraordinarily high-quality output – but at a price already way beyond the BBC’s capacity to pay,” she said.
Boris Johnson, the London Mayor and Tory MP, recently complained: “Why on earth can’t the BBC produce a show as brilliant as Breaking Bad?” The BBC says its drama is equal to the US’s best and represents better value for money.
Rona Fairhead’s essay ‘Tomorrow’s BBC’ appears in the soon-to-be-published book ‘The BBC Today: Future Uncertain’
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