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BBC: Independence

Volume 773: debated on Monday 6 June 2016


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of whether regulation by Ofcom and government appointments to a unitary board are the best ways of guaranteeing the continued independence of the BBC.

My Lords, the new charter will strengthen the independence of the BBC by giving it a powerful new unitary board and allowing it to appoint the majority of board members for the first time. Following the recommendations of the independent review by Sir David Clementi, Ofcom will become the independent regulator of the BBC. It has a track record as a successful media and telecommunications regulator.

Does the Minister not appreciate that there can be no independence, or perception of independence, when half or more of the new unitary board members are to be appointed by the Government? That board will have editorial influence. Ofcom does not have the expertise to handle complaints about impartiality and accuracy. Its board members, too, are appointed by the Government and its committees are full of ex-BBC members. Moreover, rule by charter prevents Parliament discussing and settling these matters. Is that not regrettable?

My Lords, I repeat that the majority of board members will be appointed by the BBC. The charter will also set out the independence of the BBC’s director-general as the BBC’s editor-in-chief. Non-executives will be unable to make broadcast decisions. As Sir David Clementi noted in his independent review, there was a general consensus around Ofcom as the BBC’s future regulator.

My Lords, I share many of the concerns of the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, and have 15 specific questions to put to the noble Earl. However, to save your Lordships’ time I wrote to the Minister—the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe—outlining those questions. Can the noble Earl assure me that I will get a reply within the customary 14 days? Will it be a substantive reply? Will the noble Earl also, for the convenience of the House, place a copy of my letter and the department’s response in the Library?

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Alli, for that question. I am glad—the House might have got a little impatient with 15 questions. The department is aware of the letter from the noble Lord and will respond as soon as it can. It is also willing to hold a meeting with the noble Lord to go through these items. I will not give a commitment to 14 days at this moment but if there is any more news I can give, I will report to the noble Lord.

My Lords, would it not help to entrench the independence of the BBC if the appointments made to the board were for one term only so there was no risk of board members currying favour in the hope of another appointment? Indeed, did not the previous chair of Ofcom choose to serve for only one term? Is that not a record worth following?

My Lords, I thank my noble friend. I am sure that my colleagues in the department will take careful note of the one-term issue. I should add that the appointment process for the board members will follow OCPA guidance and public sector best practice.

My Lords, the Secretary of State intends to issue guidance to ensure that BBC services are clearly differentiated from the rest of the market. Many feel that this could curtail the BBC’s creative freedom to make popular programmes. Will the government-appointed members of the new board be free to ignore that guidance and thus retain the BBC’s editorial independence?

My Lords, I think the noble Lord refers to the distinctiveness issue that is in the BBC’s new mission. I draw the attention of the House to the mission:

“To act in the public interest, serving all audiences with impartial, high-quality and distinctive media content and services that inform, educate and entertain”.

The noble Lord mentioned another point towards the end of his question to which I do not have the answer. I will write to him.

My Lords, do the Government agree that the important thing is to make sure that the new board is composed of genuinely independent people, which it will not be if the same sort of people are appointed in the same old way by the same old establishment? Therefore, what do the Government think of the suggestion that the board, or a proportion of it, should be elected by the licence fee payers?

My Lords, I think that the noble Lord or somebody else mentioned that point when we previously discussed this issue. As I have said, the appointment process for board members will follow OCPA guidance and public sector best practice. The majority of board members will be put forward by the BBC.