From service reviews to audience councils: how accountable is the BBC Trust?

Against a common accusation that the BBC is unaccountable, Diane Coyle, Vice-Chairman of the BBC Trust, explains the mechanisms that are in place to register feedback and stimulate public conversation. But how effective are these procedures? 

Diane Coyle
18 September 2012

A recent article by Dan Hancox on this website raised a number of questions about the future of accountability at the BBC. As Vice-Chairman of the BBC Trust, I have been invited to set out how we try to ensure the BBC is answerable to the public, who pay for it through the licence fee. I particularly want to challenge the suggestion that we are unaccountable.

The BBC Trust is the governing body of the BBC, established by the last Royal Charter in 2006. It consists of 12 non-executive members including myself and the Chairman, Lord Patten, selected through the normal process for public appointments. We are supported by the Trust Unit, a team of professional BBC staff who are operationally distinct from the BBC Executive. Our main responsibilities include setting the Corporation’s overall strategy, under the guiding principles of ‘inform, educate and entertain’; issuing a service licence to each BBC service – reviewed every five years – which sets out what we expect it to deliver and how much it can spend; setting the BBC’s editorial standards which require programme makers to maintain the highest degree of integrity and impartiality; monitoring performance to ensure the BBC provides value for money.

The common theme through all our work is getting the best out of the BBC for licence fee payers. As the best way to work out what they want is to ask them, we place a great deal of importance on engaging with the public. We listen to concerns when they have them, and we keep an open dialogue so audiences have a chance to inform and shape what we do. In this article I want to discuss the various ways the BBC Trust listens to licence fee payers and communicates with them.

As perhaps the world’s foremost public service broadcaster, it is imperative that the BBC provides content that is high quality, accurate, fair and impartial. When on occasion it falls short, what recourse do viewers and listeners have? The BBC has a thorough internal complaints system, and the Trust is the final point of appeal within the BBC for complaints including editorial and programme matters, fair trading and TV licensing. Anyone who is not satisfied with how their complaint has been dealt with by the BBC has the right to appeal to us. We recently asked the BBC Executive to make the complaints system faster and fairer, including by appointing a chief complaints editor and expediting vexatious complainants, so we can devote more time to genuine concerns.

As we typically do, we held a public consultation on these changes.  Consultations form a significant part of how the BBC Trust engages with people. Feedback from licence fee payers lets us know if we are taking a policy in the right direction, or may even give us a good idea that we had not considered. We often adjust our proposals in the light of consultations, as we did with the complaints system.

Probably the most significant examples of consultation responses influencing BBC policy were the strong views audiences gave us on proposals to close BBC 6 Music and to scale back BBC Local Radio, which were initially among the savings proposals the BBC Executive drew up after the latest licence fee settlement. Savings have to be made across a wide range of services, and nobody wants to see their favourites cut back; however the overwhelming strength of feeling about 6 Music and Local Radio provided strong evidence to support the Trust when we ruled the proposed cuts were disproportionate and asked the Executive to rethink them.

However, it is not just these big “set-piece” occasions when we seek views from the public. Every time we review one of the BBC service licences that we issue, or assess proposals for significant changes or new services, we run a consultation. For example, during our service review of BBC One, when viewers told us there was not enough “fresh and new” content on the channel to meet their expectations, we asked the Executive to show a wider variety of programmes in the evenings and take more creative risks in the high-profile 9pm slot. There are examples like this from every service review we have done.

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.

We also have direct input from our own Audience Councils. There is an Audience Council for each of the four nations in the UK. Led by the Trustee for that nation, the Council members are viewers and listeners from a wide range of backgrounds, who advise the Trust from the perspective of licence fee payers in their nation. As well as contributing to our routine work, they also bring to our attention areas where they consider action is required. For instance, it was their concern over coverage of devolved issues on network news which led to the Trust conducting an impartiality review (the King Review) on the subject in 2008. Since then there has been a significant improvement, although the Audience Councils tell us licence fee payers in the devolved nations would like to see even more.

Representing the UK’s nations, regions and communities is one of the six core public purposes of the BBC – the absolute key priorities for the Corporation set out in the BBC’s Charter – so we work hard with our audience councils, the public and media industry to ensure the BBC is improving in this respect. Our focus will vary over time. We are about to finish consulting on the draft operating agreement for the Welsh language channel S4C, which will be funded mostly by the licence fee from April 2013.  

This is just one of a number of significant pieces of work coming up at the Trust in the next few months. This year saw the completion of our first five-year cycle of service reviews, and we will be consulting with audiences again as we launch our next round of reviews with a look at BBC Online and Red Button this autumn. We will undertake our third review of the Window of Creative Competition (WoCC), the slice of licence fee funding which television programme makers inside the BBC and the independent sector can compete for. We will shortly publish the terms of reference for our next impartiality review, which will look at how the BBC ensures an appropriate range of opinions are covered across news and current affairs programming. On each of these diverse pieces of work, we will commission research, hold consultations, and engage directly with audiences in public meetings around the UK.

The licence fee settlement means the BBC, like many organisations, must make large savings and this inevitably brings choices. Some of the issues involved are complex, perhaps involving technological questions, and there are often unavoidable dilemmas. People in the United Kingdom undeniably have a high degree of trust in and appreciation for the BBC. The Trust’s job is to make a judgement about the necessary choices based on feedback from licence fee papers, as well as other evidence like value for money considerations – and to make our decisions openly so we can be held to account for them.

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