British Government Signals BBC Regulatory U-Turn

21 January 2002

Political rune-readers detect signs of a sea-change in the government’s hitherto rigid policy toward the regulation of state-owned behemoth, the British Broadcasting Corporation.

Initial drafting of the Communications Bill, currently in its consultative phase, reflected ministers’ adamance that regulation of the BBC must remain in the hands of its politically-appointed board of governors. This is vehemently opposed both by politicians of all shades and the commercial TV and radio lobby, who argue that all broadcasters including the BBC should be regulated by the same independent body, Ofcom.

The apparent shift toward the latter view was signalled by former culture, media and sport secretary Chris Smith, author of the communications bill, who last week told parliament that it could be in the interests of the UK public service broadcaster to be regulated by an independent authority.

Said Smith: “I have had the opportunity to reflect further on these matters and I believe that that would make a substantial difference to the BBC's interests.” Obediently on cue, departmental under-secretary of state Kim Howells told MPs that Smith’s views would be “taken very seriously”, adding: “I am sure [these] will be debated when we discuss the main communications bill.”

There is considerable cross-part support for Smith’s conversion on the road to broadcasting Jericho, among those backing his U-turn being such opposites as Tory shadow media secretary Tim Yeo and Gerald Kaufman, Labour Party doyen and chairman of the all-party media select committee.

In the bill's original draft all radio and TV companies, including the BBC, have certain public broadcasting obligations. In the commercial sector these will be policed by a single body, Ofcom, which has no similar authority over the BBC. Failures and transgressions of the latter are the sole preserve of the BBC’s own board of governors – aka the government of the day.

News source: BrandRepublic (UK)