Burns Report Tightens Government Garrotte on BBC

01 February 2005

Mafia tradition demands that the capo di tutti capi does not undertake his own hits. Nor, incidentally, does he forget a slight, real or imagined.

But such practices would be at odds with the high moral climate that exemplifies British politics today. And so it came to pass that Lord Terry Burns, a trusted henchman of British prime minister Tony Blair, was chosen by ther government to head a panel of inquiry into the BBC's independent board of governors.

Each and every panel member was also also a government appointee.

Burns, a former civil servant and permanent secretary to the UK Treasury, is these days a top businessman with a number of lucrative sinecures such as the chairs of Abbey National Bank and Welsh Water. He is also a non-executive director of the Pearson group and of British Land.

In his spare time he is wont to chair independent government inquiries, all of which have produced an outcome remarkably similar to that desired by the government.

No surprise, then, at the conclusions and recommendations of Burns' latest work published this week - an examination of the governance of the BBC.

Currently, the primary duty of the twelve-strong board of BBC governors is to represent the public interest, in particular the interests of viewers and listeners.But this statutory obligation does not always coincide with the political interests of the government.

For example, the BBC's reportage in 2003 of the Blair administration's allegedly "sexed-up" intelligence dossier on Iraq's nebulous weapons of mass destruction.

Little love has been lost between the Blair administration and the BBC's governors since the latter's robust public support of BBC management and news staff over the dossier affair. And now, two years on from the furore, comes retribution administered by His Lordship's independent investigation and report.

The BBC board, argues Burns, should be replaced en bloc by a new Public Service Broadcasting Commission (PSBC), the members of which would be appointed by the government. This recommendation has been passed to culture, media and sport secretary Tessa Jowell - whose job, like that of all cabinet ministers, depends on the patronage of premier Blair.

In an accompanying letter to Jowell, Burns rubbishes the governance reforms put forward by the BBC's recently appointed chairman, Michael Grade.

Opines Burns: "The dual role of the governors as both critical friend of management and defenders of the BBC on the one hand, and providing public interest oversight of the licence fee money on the other, is maintained [under the Grade proposal].

"We doubt if this would satisfy those outside the BBC who may be affected by the corporation's activities or those who worry about an adequate mechanism for dealing with complaints ... Further, we believe that structural change is necessary if the BBC is to escape from the seemingly endless cycle of external reviews to which it has been subject."

The Burns missive continues: "A new Public Service Broadcasting Commission would be established to be independent of government with responsibility for public interest oversight of public money invested in broadcasting and for recommending to government the level of the licence fee.

"It would take on the current accountability role of the governors combined with some of the responsibilities of the government and would ensure that the charter objectives for public service broadcasting were met."

The Burns panel also moots that (additional to the PSBC), the BBC be ruled internally by a newly formed "unitary board of executives and non-executive directors in line with the recommendations of the combined code on corporate governance".

This board would be led by a non executive chairman, appointed by the government and made up of a majority of independent non-executive directors, along with the director general and a small number of executive directors. The board would appoint the director general.

The Burns panel's proposals efficiently deliver a result seemingly desired by government. A BBC emasculated, stuffed and trussed. And fearful henceforth of free speech.

The BBC's response to Burns' opus was measured, praising members of the panel for the "intelligence and rigour" of their work.

Data sourced from MediaGuardian.co.uk; additional content by WARC staff