The BBC: above reproach, or beyond reach?

How well do the BBC's publicly stated methods of accountability stand up? They were recently outlined by the BBC Trust here on ourBeeb; Dan Hind delves beneath the rhetoric and finds a consistent lack of clarity and openness.

Dan Hind
19 October 2012

On 18 September ourBeeb published an article by the Vice-Chairman of the BBC Trust, Diane Coyle, in which she set out how the Trust tries ‘to ensure the BBC is answerable to the public’. In particular, she tried to ‘challenge the suggestion’ that the state broadcaster was unaccountable. In making her case Coyle referred briefly to the fact that the Trust’s members are ‘selected through the normal process for public appointments’. In a democracy one might think that ‘the normal process for public appointments’ is election. In fact the Trustees ‘are appointed by the Queen on advice from DCMS (Department for Culture, Media and Sport) ministers through the Prime Minister’, according to the BBC Trust’s website. While this might be normal in Britain it is not obviously accountable in any public sense. What about elections? Or juries, come to that?

Coyle goes into a little more detail about the way the Trust ‘listens to licence fee payers and communicates with them’. She sets out three mechanisms: ‘a thorough internal complaints procedure’, public consultations, and ‘direct input from Audience Councils’. The aim, according to Coyle, is to ensure that ‘audiences have a chance to inform and shape what we do’. 

Let’s leave complaints to one side. Complaints are for customers and we are talking about public accountability here, not customer service. In fact it is a little strange that Coyle even refers to the complaints procedure at all. The BBC claims that complaints are a commercially sensitive editorial matter and not covered by the Freedom of Information Act. People who complain to the BBC might be surprised that there is no simple and accountable way to find out if anyone else shares their concerns. This lack of publicity for complaints might also have some bearing on the nature of the complaints they receive. Doubtless this will all be addressed transparently in the forthcoming review on balance at the BBC. It would be strange if information about complaints was simultaneously kept away from the public and taken as an accurate reflection of public opinion. 

(In Venice citizens could put their complaints in the mouths of stone lions. From time to time these statues were emptied. Most people saw this for what it was, a bit of fun. Those who thought the authorities read their notes with keen interest were not, to put it mildly, representative of the wider population. The BBC is not Venice but at the moment its complaints procedure looks very much like a bocca-di-leone. It takes a certain sort of trusting nature to put your concerns in the mouth of a lion.)

The audience councils aren’t terribly important, either, if the BBC’s own website is anything to go on. That leaves consultations. Coyle tells us that consultations are ‘a significant part of how the BBC Trust engages with people’. The process as described certainly sounds impressively accountable:

"Typically, thousands of individuals take part in our consultations, and a wide range of organisations and others in the media sector too. More than 47,000 responded to the consultation which covered 6 Music, and 11,500 to the one including Local Radio. We summarise the responses in our final report on each review, and the comments are fed into the recommendations we make to the service, translating people’s comments into a positive impact on what they see or hear from that service in future. All of this is published on our website, along with any specific research we commission. So anybody can see the evidence on which we base our decisions."

On the Trust’s website is a page on 'Sustaining citizenship and civil society’ - one of the core public purposes of the BBC as set out in the organisation’s Charter. Here you will learn that the Trust ‘after public consultation’ divided its remit for delivering this public purpose into ‘five specific priorities’. You might think that the Trust would want to show their working, so that the public could quickly find the evidence on which they base their decisions. But there’s no link to the results of this public consultation, although it is presumably on the site somewhere, in light of what’s quoted above. A search doesn’t help. Put the words consultation and citizenship together in the search box and you end up with zero results. (At least I did when I tried on 14 October.)

At the end of her article Coyle refers to ‘a number of significant pieces of work coming up at the Trust in the next few months’. She didn’t happen to mention that, according to Trust’s website, since 13 September the BBC has been ‘consulting publicly on some planned changes to what are called Purpose Remits – documents that explain what the BBC needs to do to fulfil each of its public purposes’. 

Among other things, the Trust wants to change the wording of some of the ‘five specific priorities’ regarding ‘citizenship and civil society’ mentioned above. But at the moment it is difficult to establish exactly how the Trust came up with the original Purpose Remits. And we have no idea why the Trust thinks they should now be changed. More seriously, many people don’t even know that the BBC has six public purposes, much less what they are. 

How many people do know? Has the BBC done any research on public awareness of its public purposes and the priorities derived from them? Can we see it? How well understood is the BBC’s structure? (Dan Hancox and I have put these questions, and some others, to the BBC Trust as Freedom of Information requests. For some reason Coyle overlooked the enhanced accountability that the Freedom of Information Act brings to the Corporation.)

In her article Coyle mentions only one of the six public purposes – ‘representing the UK’s nations, regions and communities’. Elsewhere she says that ‘our main responsibilities include setting the Corporation’s overall strategy, under the guiding principles of “inform, educate and entertain”’. This is familiar, but technically inexact. Guiding principles are all very well, but the Corporation is, or should be, shaped by public purposes that are defined and revised in an accountable way. Perhaps the BBC could do more to explain to its audiences what they are, so they can more effectively ‘inform and shape’ them. After all, public purposes should be, well, public.

The proposed changes to the Purpose Remits include adding a reference to ‘the importance of sustaining citizenship through the enrichment of the public realm’. Did the original consultation record any interest among audiences for ‘the enrichment of the public realm’? Why has the BBC decided to include this phrase now? What does it mean, exactly? How will it seek to enrich the public realm? Addressing these questions could mark the beginning of something extremely worthwhile. After all, a debate about the civic purposes of the country’s preeminent broadcaster and online news source would be a great way to sustain ‘citizenship and civil society’. We could even conduct it, publicly and accountably, on the BBC.

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