The BBC Trust: a work in progress

A chorus of critics is calling for the abolition of the BBC Trust. Yes, it may be flawed but this body could yet be reformed to fulfil its public service function.

Jacquie Hughes
24 April 2015

Jon Zeff, ex-director of the BBC Trust, who abandoned his £180k job after just nine months. Image: public domain

Poor old BBC Trust, possibly the most beleaguered and battered public body de jour. Last week’s announcement that director Jon Zeff was fleeing before the Trust’s predicted post election nuking, was just the latest in a sorry line of assaults: The Public Accounts Committee (PAC), DCMS select committee, Chancellor George Osborne, Grant Shapps (and any number of Tories), industrialist Howard Davies, the Royal Television Society, Financial Times, Commercial Broadcasters Association, a smattering of academics - have all gone public with their condemnation of the BBC’s less-than-a-decade-old sovereign body. Even the new Chair of the Trust Rona Fairhead appeared to suggest suicide was the least bad option.

Trustees and Trust members are understandably keen to press upon anyone who will listen that while criticism of the Trust is easy, governing the UK’s biggest intervention into the media market is an altogether more tricky and nuanced task. Oh, and that not everything they’ve been blamed for is their fault.

When I published my report on the future of the BBC, Charter Renewal and PSB in February I was conscious that arguing for the retention of the Trust was both a novel and potentially foolish thing to do in the face of what appeared to be a consensus calling for its head. But I didn’t do it to court controversy, far from it. In fact, it would have been dead easy to add to the anti-Trust noise: to note the impossible task of being cheerleader and regulator; the confusion of responsibility (who do you call on in a crisis?); to record how prone to capture the Trust has proved; how all too reactive it has been when firm and proactive behaviour was called for; and so on. 

Instead, I decided that the Trust is a work in progress, flawed, in need of some new and more useful definition of its role, but nonetheless a huge improvement on what had come before, and a vital, independent, custodian of the public interest. Giving Ofcom more regulatory powers over the BBC alone does not ‘fix’ the governance issue of the BBC. Even outgoing Ofcom Chief Executive Ed Richards recognised this: 

These are different functions, which are often elided. There is a regulatory function and there is a governance function. One of the problems in this debate is that people think they are the same and I really don’t think they are, so we have to separate them out. In relation to governance, there has to be a governance model and that should not be Ofcom or anybody else. It has to be associated with and close to the BBC. The role there is to be the custodian of the licence fee on behalf of all of us and that role is going to exist whatever happens. The question is whether the trust model is effective in that regard.

Governance concerns the structures, functions, processes, and organisational traditions that have been put in place ‘to ensure that an organisation is run in such a way that it achieves its objectives in an effective and transparent manner.’ It is the ‘framework of accountability to users, stakeholders and the wider community, within which organizations take decisions, and lead and control their functions, to achieve their objectives.’ Effective governance adds value by improving the performance of the organisation through more efficient management, more strategic and equitable resource allocation and service provision, and ‘in holding the management accountable for the delivery of strategy’. This last bit is exactly what the BBC’s governing body should be doing, but has been judged not to. This is the area for reform. 

The BBC is a public institution and its governing body should therefore be demonstrably independent and accountable for its responsibilities. The idea that a public body spending upwards of £4bn a year of other people’s money can be run entirely by its board of management - even with a hawkish NAO and PAC in the background - but with no separate body to protect public interest and value is ridiculous. It’s imperative that the determination of strategy and accountability for the disposal of this funding rests with an independent, self-governing institution which itself has no interest save serving the public in the provision of public service broadcasting.

I think if you accept this then it begins to make sense to reform what we have, rather than slash, burn and re-invent. It seems perverse to me to lose all the institutional learning of the past decade, to lose the intelligence built up over that period, to destroy the relationships and the chance to learn from past mistakes. 

It’s also worth stating that a reformed Trust alone is not the whole answer to better BBC governance; wholesale reform of the BBC’s Executive function must be part of the plan too. Whereas governance is concerned with ‘doing the right thing’, management is concerned with ‘doing things right,’ and that plainly has not been the case on a number of fronts. 

So, we sort of know what doesn’t work: there is obvious confusion about who Chairs the BBC and who takes responsibility for what in a crisis. The whole of the Trust board is made up of non-execs, which leads, naturally, to questions of professional competence and capacity to implement proper corporate governance. As a former senior BBC employee once put it to me: 

‘The best kind of trustees are beady eyed people for whom regulation is meat and drink: university professors, economists, non-political, more independent people with substantial corporate experience who know how to get things done. The current trustees are the same kind of people who were trustees and governors before...they are variations on the great and good. They lack the necessary skills and courage. 

And then there’s the capture question. I witnessed first hand the dismissive nature with which some members of the BBC Executive treated their relationship to what is, after all, its sovereign body: poorly prepared papers, sketchy financial information, ill-preparedness for meetings, even non-appearance. 

So what works? The framework of accountability, the responsibility for ensuring that the BBC satisfies its designated public purposes and aspires to the highest standards of quality befitting its funding and status is at the heart of the Trust role. And it is right here, out of the glare of the big stuff around executive pay and digital media initiative mess ups that some of the Trust’s work has been most effective: rejecting BBC plans to close Radio 6 music because it worked for its audience and was unlike anything else on offer was the right move. Less well known, but as important, has been work on making Radio 1 and 2 more distinctive, more interesting, to serve their core audiences better. This kind of effort shows that pushing hard on quality and insisting that there need not be a trade off between distinctiveness and popularity is important work and can enhance the offer to audiences.

Pushing for television to be more distinctive has proved more difficult (outgoing Trustee David Liddiment described it as his greatest challenge) but only the Trust is positioned to do this kind of work. As David Elstein noted in an earlier post, who is holding ITV, Channel 4 and Channel Five’s feet to the fire on quality issues? No-one. Ofcom is not set up to do this kind of work. 

The Trust’s periodic reviews of impartiality - or certain aspects of output: business reporting, current affairs, coverage of the countryside etc - can and have lead to changes to individual service licences. Running public consultations to allow audiences and competitors a voice, along with impromptu reviews of individual genres, services or aspects of output add to an evidence base for judging – and, if necessary, altering – BBC service licences. BBC2, to take one example, was told to carry more international current affairs, much to the Controller’s distaste.

I would go further. One of my issues with the Trust’s work on quality of outputs is that it’s all a bit ‘after the fact’. Its reviews - by nature - report on what has gone before, rather than help shape the output in line with agreed objectives before it has been commissioned. Looked at over the past decade, not only has there been a significant reduction in the BBC’s investment in original content overall, there has also been a de-prioritisation of investment in key public service genres: music and arts, current affairs, religion and children’s programming. In the absence of a national, public conversation about the BBC’s relative prioritisation of programme genres, we should have been comforted by the knowledge that the Trust was both driving and supporting such shifts in the best interests of the licence fee payer. That cannot be said to have happened, and must therefore be judged as a failure of strategic oversight. 

The Trust should be empowered to ‘own’ the BBC strategy and should be responsible for its creation and for holding the BBC Executive Board to account for its efficient and effective implementation. The Trust should take the lead in developing and shaping the strategy for the BBC, including programme strategy, before stepping back from matters concerned simply with operational implementation (this is the task of the BBC Executive Board). 

The Trust must, however, retain sufficient independent powers of scrutiny to be able to hold the BBC Executive Board to account for the timely and appropriate implementation of agreed strategic objectives. It should hold the BBC Executive Management to proper account in establishing and maintaining a simplified and equitable strategy for programme commissioning that is based predominantly on consideration of quality. It is vital then, that the BBC Trust is fully capable of asserting its own independence from any political party, from vested interests in the commercial or other sectors, and from the interests of BBC Executives. 

The Chair of the Trust should continue to be appointed by the designated Secretary of State. But the appointments process, as for each of the Non-Executive Directors of the Trust Board, should be delegated to the civil service commission and should be open to public, impartial competition. This would create a very direct link – on a non-executive level – into the inner workings of the BBC, but would also protect the independence of the Trust Board from both political and executive interference. The job and person specification for the role should reflect their key responsibility for the governance of the Trust’s and the BBC’s affairs. Not the management of the BBC. 

The Director General of the BBC should run the day-to-day business of the BBC through the BBC Executive Board, which they would Chair. As with any other Executive Board, this Board would have powers to appoint executive and non-executive members. The Board would be responsible and accountable to the BBC Trust Board for the effective implementation of the BBC’s strategy. The Trust Board would be responsible and accountable to the Secretary of State for the overall governance of the BBC, the agreement and discharge of its PSB responsibilities, and the establishment of a coherent strategy for the BBC that ensures that this is achieved.

Both boards should be held to account for the financial affairs of the BBC through an annual independent audit undertaken by the National Audit Office. Its audit report would be a publicly available document laid before Parliament and made available to the Secretary of State. Finally, the existing governance principle of separation between the role and the activities of the BBC Trust and the BBC Executive Board (together with attendant clarity of the separation of powers, responsibilities and duties between the BBC Trust Chair and the Director General of the BBC) should be reasserted and strengthened.

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