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Ofcom should be the BBC's ultimate overlord, UK.gov told

Goodbye fat-cat make-work schemes, hello to proper accountability

By Andrew Orlowski, 2 Mar 2016

Telcomms regulator Ofcom should also regulate the BBC, a review for the Ministry of Fun has found.

An independent review into the governance and regulation of BBC governance by Sir David Clementi, commissioned by DCMS, reported back yesterday.

Astonishingly, Clementi came up with the result that the government had wanted in advance: to abolish the BBC Trust and hand some of its regulatory functions to Ofcom.

The trust is a Noughties creation that came into being after the BBC lost its director general and its chairman within 24 hours in 2004, after the Hutton enquiry criticised its journalism.

The journalism was later vindicated but the BBC didn’t have the institutional resilience to stand up to pressure. Its 77-year-old board structure was abolished and replaced by a trust and an executive board. Members of both were BBC employees.

From the start, the BBC Trust had an impossible problem to reconcile: both defending the BBC, and representing the tax licence-fee-payer if the BBC failed the public. The new structure actually handed more power to the Executive Board, which fiercely defended its turf, including executive remuneration. When fat cat pay became a tabloid scandal, the “voice of the licence fee payer” was unable to act.

However, the BBC Trust was often the watchdog that failed to bark when it could. It swooned as consultants and staff racked up a £100m bill on the catastrophic Digital Media Initiative, described as a “digital brain” and nicknamed “Don’t Mention It” internally. The National Audit Office criticised it for failing to commission an independent technical investigation into DMI’s viability in 2010, and failed to chase up warnings. At one point the trust even declared that DMI was something "of which the BBC should be proud”.

The head of technology at the Corporation, who was rapidly scapegoated, would later win an employment tribunal case against the BBC.

The BBC Trust would go on to spend £157,000 on recruitment consultants only to choose the leading internal candidate. The hapless Entwistle lasted just 52 days.

This reporter’s experience of the surreal culture at the top of the BBC came when we reported on its expensive legal fight to prevent the disclosure of a policy meeting agenda that was already in the public domain. The BBC has also fought the disclosure of the judges of its Radio 2 Folk Awards – which is more understandable, perhaps, given the social stigma of liking folk music.

Early on the BBC Trust indicated it was ready to intervene and kill off empire-building schemes, such as the £150m “BBC Jam” education initiative. But it let other self-indulgent job generation schemes, such as BBC Space drag on for years.

The Culture Minister recently scrapped the results of a public consultation on the BBC after it was flooded with robo-spam from slacktivist organiser 38 Degrees. People could automatically send in as many pre-filled responses as they liked.

Whether the technocratic phone and broadband regulator is a suitable watchdog is an open question. But at least it doesn’t have to face two ways at once. ®

Bootnote

The BBC Charter. (PDF)

The Register - Independent news and views for the tech community. Part of Situation Publishing