Ofcom Should Regulate BBC, Moviemaker Urges Government

27 August 2002

Lord David Puttnam – erstwhile producer of such 80s movie epics as Chariots of Fire, The Killing Fields and Midnight Express – now a political peer ennobled through the patronage of Tony Blair, this weekend urged the government to amend its draft Communications Bill to extend the bill's tepid regulation of the BBC.

Despite the creation of a so-called ‘super watchdog’, Ofcom, whose remit will extend to all broadcast , telephony and online media, the bill in its current form hardly impinges on the autocracy of the state-owned broadcaster’s board of governors.

This body, comprised mainly of government placemen and women, oversees the corporation’s broadcast content and the activities of its chairman and director general – executives they themselves appoint along with a nod and a wink from the government of the day. The governors act not only in a capacity similar to a board of directors, but also as arbiters of taste, political impartiality and what is (or is not) in the public interest.

Puttnam, who chairs the parliamentary joint committee scrutinizing the draft Communications Bill, told delegates at the Edinburgh International Television Festival that successive governments of all political hues had failed to regulate the BBC to protect the broadcasting sector as a whole.

“In legislating for a powerful and effective Ofcom, we have a one-time opportunity to create a regulatory body which doesn’t ‘sell the pass’ in the face of difficult political weather.” He went on to urge culture, media and sport secretary Tessa Jowell to “construct and agree a new, albeit somewhat diminished, role for the [BBC] governors”.

Puttnam then turned his attention to BBC director general Greg Dyke, a multi-millionaire former commercial TV veteran whose contributions to broadcast scheduling include the introduction to breakfast TV of puppet Roland Rat.

Those of aesthetic persuasion accuse Dyke [and his BBC predecessor, fellow commercial TV tycoon, Lord John Birt] of serial dumbing-down of the once respected corporation; whereas those of a commercial persuasion accuse him of trespassing into their backyards in his quest for ratings at any price.

Puttnam [who has a foot in both critical camps] urged Dyke. “Be generous with your power and wise with your responsibilities,” he urged. “They are different to those you see as your competitors. Be more Mandela than Murdoch; dare I say it, more Blair than Bush. It would be all too easy to clumsily turn everyone's favourite Auntie into an organisation that displayed many of the traits of an abusive uncle.”

Data sourced from: Financial Times and Independent.co.uk; additional content by WARC staff