It is easy to forget in the maelstrom which envelops the BBC that it continues to be an incredibly successful global broadcaster, that audiences enjoy its output, and that its health ensures that the sector overall is commercially and creatively productive as well as being home-grown. The problems it faces are serious and need swift resolution, but they should not be allowed to undermine the case for the BBC, or its continuing success.
Politicians should call for decisive action, but must not intervene directly, because BBC independence really matters. Trust is an overused term, but a guarantee of impartiality and accuracy in news and reporting is what the corporation is for. There will be calls for these judgments to be transferred to Ofcom, but if the BBC Trust loses this remit then the core purpose of the BBC as an independent entity is diminished.
This crisis must not be allowed to herald the slow death of the uniqueness of the BBC. Calls for it to be broken up, slimmed down and generally punished have inevitably followed this turbulent period. But to assume that it operates in a normal commercial market is to miss the fact that the BBC is an institution that is sorely needed to counter-balance failures in the market. It is truly a public good which, despite everything, continues to provide high-quality journalism, factual programming and drama, keeping journalistic and production values higher in the commercial sector than if it didn’t exist.
Clearly there are short-term issues that must be urgently addressed. The culture of moralistic smugness which pervades the BBC has to end. There has been a sense that it has sought the benefits of the private sector while enjoying the certainties of the public sector. Instead, the organisation should radiate humility and a sense of renewed purpose. Layers of management need to be slimmed down, with clearer lines of accountability and greater working together rather than against each other.
It is understandable that when this crisis hit, the Trust was careful to allow the new director-general to get control of the situation. What is now needed is for the Trust to get a grip on the serious problems facing the corporation, not for the Trust model itself to be disparaged to the point of no return.
The BBC Trust was created in 2006, as part of a new form of governance. This was in response to the largest-ever deliberative consultation with the public in the course of developing a new charter and negotiating the new licence fee. But the Trust has not yet been a strong enough or assertive enough voice on behalf of the licence-fee payer.
Once the dust settles, the progressive long-term solution to restoring trust in the BBC would be to make it the country’s biggest mutual, with 26.8 million licence-fee payers as its shareholders. As one of our most treasured and important public institutions, the principles of mutualism – democratic ownership, solidarity and equity – would fit perfectly with the BBC’s editorial remit of impartiality, transparency and accountability.
Giving licence-fee payers membership of the BBC and the power to elect a majority of the Trust could move the new model forward in a number of ways. The first is that, by co-opting the public’s voice, a more democratically accountable Trust would have more legitimacy in managing what has become an overly strong BBC executive.
Second, the public need to feel after Savile that they have a stake in rebuilding trust in the BBC, rather than a top-down solution based on the appointment of a few new senior women or men. One of the reasons the Trust has lost confidence is because it is out of touch with the public. The Trust must explain if and why George Entwistle’s payout can be justified to the public. A mutual BBC would insist on this and remind trustees that their first loyalty is to the licence-fee payers, not the institution itself.
The third reason for introducing a mutual BBC is that it would give the public more of a say over programmes and direction. It is a simple principle that if we pay for the BBC, the institution should be more accountable to us. This would disrupt the oft-held discussion between Radio 4 commentators about what content the BBC provides, typically divided into whether it should be airing reality TV versus period dramas: if the BBC was mutualised, this rarefied debate would be located instead with the public.
Lord Reith said that the role of the BBC was to “inform, educate and entertain”. Only radical public ownership will continue to ensure that these values are firmly embedded at the heart of the corporation and restore the trust it needs to overcome this crisis in the longer term.
Tessa Jowell is the MP for Dulwich and West Norwood, this article is cross-posted with thanks from the Daily Telegraph