UK Media Regulator Sets Sights on BBC Governance

09 February 2005

Politicians resemble elephants in many respects, one of the least insanitary being that they never forget.

Since the seminal incident in 2003 when the BBC accused the Blair administration of 'sexing-up' its dossier on Iraq's nonexistent weapons of mass destruction, the moving finger started to write.

It fingered the journalists and editors most directly concerned (now departed), the BBC's then chairman and director general (now departed) and the BBC's twelve-strong board of governors. It still points at the latter.

A government-appointed independent panel was hired to conclude the unfinished business. Headed by Blair appointee Lord Terry Burns, a banker and former senior civil servant, it duly produced a report proposing the scrapping of the BBC's governance system to be replaced by "a new Public Service Broadcasting Commission" [WAMN: 01-Feb-05].

And on Tuesday Ofcom, the media supra-regulator created by the government in January 2003, also made its move. The body, which is headed by ministerial appointees but currently has no authority over the BBC, published a report condemning the latter's system of gubernatorial regulation as "flawed on several counts".

Citing consultation both with viewers and commercial rivals, Ofcom unsurprisingly concludes there to be "value" in the Burns report. "The BBC governors have up to now not been sufficiently independent of the BBC's executive, with the risk that both internal governance and effective oversight in the public interest are compromised," it opined.

Ofcom then made its land grab, claiming that it, not the BBC governors, should conduct assessments of the potential impact on commercial rivals of new BBC services such as online, digital TV services or magazine launches.

"The approach to competition issues should be the same across the sector - with the BBC subject to the same ex ante rules as commercial broadcasters. This would allow Ofcom to intervene promptly in the even of a possible threat to competition," said the body.

However, Ofcom denies its intervention is an attempt to snatch regulatory control from the BBC's governors. Hands aloft in pious innocence, Ofcom ceo Stephen Carter protests: "We don't take a view on which is preferable, we just lay out the pros and cons."

And in demonstration of its even-handedness, Ofcom proposes an increase in the BBC's annual licence fee, currently £121 ($225; €176). Its report advises the government to examine an "enhanced licence fee" as a way of paying for all public service television.

Data sourced from; additional content by WARC staff