In the wake of the ourBeeb NHS report, how do we create accountability in the BBC? Few licence fee payers know about or understand the audience councils or the role of the BBC Trust - is it time to end government appointments and have BBC elections?
"Click on the link to the audience councils, and you get a ‘page not found’ notice. Which tells you everything you need to know about their accountability."
Last week ourBeeb published an explosive report into the failure of the BBC to cover the Health and Social Care Bill. I say explosive because it deserves to be. The report comprehensively demonstrates that the BBC totally failed to provide adequate coverage of one of the most controversial pieces of legislation in recent history – a piece of legislation which historians may well pin point as that which broke up the NHS. This deserves to be on the front pages today.
I won’t try to summarise the report here – you should read it. Or, if you don’t have time, read its conclusions. When activists moan about the failure of the press to cover their issues, I usually suggest that they get training in securing media coverage. When they complain that the BBC is biased, I usually defend it – often, it is about as good as we are going to get. But this report puts paid to any idea that the BBC was, on the issue which could end up defining this government, anything but totally in Cameron and Lansley’s pocket. For those of us who see the beeb as an extra aunt, it makes for painful reading.
But it left me wondering. With the corporate media, it is easy to say what should happen. Corporations run solely for profit should not be allowed to exist. Privately owned monopolies should not be allowed to exist. Anyone should be able to set up a newspaper, but they shouldn’t be allowed to buy out other papers if that means they own any significant portion of the UK readership.
But the BBC is a public body. What to do with them? The problem, of course, is that no one is immune from society. The BBC may exist for social good, but it still exists in our grossly unequal world. Its upper echelons will still be made up of the elite – as the report shows, in this case, some of whom had direct financial interests in the privatisation of the NHS.
The answer, of course, is a complex one. But here’s one idea: why don’t we elect the BBC Trust? The BBC is one of a few bodies which is publicly owned, but must remain separate as much as possible from the executive and the legislature – another is the courts. In the courts, in theory at least, the element of public control comes through juries. Where does it lie in the BBC?
If you look at the BBC structure on their website, it tellingly puts the Director General in the centre. When I draw an organogram of the charity I work for, I instinctively put the elected board of trustees at the top – they are my boss. That the trust doesn’t feature on the diagram is telling. They are, however, mentioned below – where it also tells you that they work closely with an audience council. Click on the link to the audience councils, and you get a ‘page not found’ notice. Which tells you everything you need to know about their accountability.
Anyway, to return to my question, why don’t we elect the trust? At the moment, as the website puts it, “Trustees are appointed by the Queen on advice from Ministers after an open selection process”. Why do we think that government ministers are the appropriate people to make this decision?
Of course, one criticism might be that you need special knowledge to be a trustee, you need particular skills. But this applies equally to being an MP – surely you need more skill to hold the whole government to account than you do to hold the BBC alone to account? Another response is to look at those who are trustees now. You can find out who they are on their website. To take one of interest to me, here’s the bio of the Scottish rep:
“An engineer by training, after a few years in business in Scotland and the US, Bill moved from the sharp edge of technology into marketing and operations. After 20 years working for both large and small companies in Scotland, Bill decided to bring the benefits of his management expertise to the public sector through a portfolio of non-executive roles, building on his non-executive experience with the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service. He took on a number of roles for the Scottish Government, where his technical and business background provided a useful contrast to the prevailing public sector view of life.
“Bill has always had an abiding interest in broadcasting, building on his childhood memories of the central role of the BBC in 1970s family life. A Broadcasting Council member when the current Charter period began, he was involved in the Audience Council for Scotland when the Trust came into being.”
Hmmph. Well, we could write thousands of words on the line “his technical and business background provided a useful contrast to the prevailing public sector view of life”. But I will write only a couple: this isn’t any especially relevant broadcasting experience. This is just a guy who has a particular kind of life experience. And someone, somewhere, has decided on our behalf that it’s what we, the public, want. By ‘someone, somewhere’, I mean the government.
Another obvious criticism is that people might not vote in such an election. Fine. I’d rather 20% decide on the future of the BBC than Maria Miller – or her predecessor, Jeremy Hunt. Another is that we’d just get politicians. Well, if that’s who people vote for, then that’s who they’ll get. Personally, I’d like to get to a point – as in Bolivia, for example, where so many positions of power are elected that almost everyone in society is a politician of some sort at some point in their life. And if it’s a proportional voting system, then at least there will be a balance.
Our BBC has failed us. It’s up to us to fix it. That can only begin to happen if we have the levers with which to do so. If we are going to elect police commissioners, then why not the BBC Trust?
Editor's note: this post was kindly cross-posted from Bright Green. For another proposal of how to democratise the BBC and turn it into the British Broadcasting Co-operative, read Dave Boyle's ourBeeb piece.