for diverse, democratic and accountable media

Carving up the BBC: The Clementi Review of BBC Governance.

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Posted by Tom O'Malley.

The BBC has been a self-regulating organisation since its first Royal Charter in 1926. It used to be regulated by a Board of Governors, and more recently by a BBC Trust. The Governors were meant, more so than the Trust members, to be representative of the nations and regions and different interest groups in society. Now, the Clementi Report on the future of BBC Governance, published on 1 March 2016 is recommending the end of self-governance. It wants the BBC to be run on a day to day basis by what it calls a ‘unitary board’ and for the regulatory oversight to be given to the commercial media regulator, Ofcom.

The review was commissioned in 2015 by the government as part of the Charter Review process. Unsurprisingly, the conduct of the review was given to Sir David Clementi,  a former Deputy Governor of the Bank of England and Director of the Financial Services Authority. The government did not give it to anyone with a background in media policy or with a career record calculated to provide detailed knowledge of the complexities of broadcasting regulation in its broader social context.

He argues that the current model is flawed because ‘It conflates governance and regulatory functions within the Trust’. There can be little dispute with this. The Trust was always going to have problems, as did the Board of Governors, separating its job over seeing the strategy of the BBC from its role as regulator.  There is a long history of individuals and organisations, like the CPBF, arguing for a BBC governed by a body which is elected, or at least made systematically more socially representative than either the Governors or the Trust have ever been.

But that is not what is driving this reform.  Ofcom’s statutory obligations are:

(a) to further the interests of citizens in relation to communications matters; and (b) to further the interests of consumers in relevant markets, where appropriate by promoting competition”

Neither of these are clearly about promoting or developing the public interest mass communications. In fact Ofcom has been pursuing the second of these with vigour. It has overseen the retreat of ITV from many of its public service broadcasting obligations and has been dutiful in policing the BBC in relation to whether or not the Corporation’s initiatives are detrimental to competition.

This is a very serious development. The Ofcom Board is made up of 10 people, none of whom formally represent people from wide range of communities which use commercial broadcasting by dint of having been elected or appointed under criteria designed to achieve that end. Their backgrounds are in largely broadcasting, accountancy, telecoms and the newspaper industry. They are very industry focused. The statutory obligations of Ofcom need to be reformed, so as to place the promotion of public service content across media platforms at the top of its priorities. In addition its governance needs to be reformed, root and branch, to make it representative of the communities which all broadcasters seek to serve.

But unless a future non-Conservative government takes this issue on, the pressure on the BBC to behave in a way that does not damage the interests of the commercial sector,  a pressure which seems to underlie the current government’s approach to Charter Renewal, will be immense. As the BBC withdraws from areas which its opponents want to take over, so the range of its content will diminish, and the case for its continued existence weakened. It might be that Sir David Clementi is a passionate advocate of public service broadcasting .

It might not. It is clearly the case that what he is recommending is one more stage in a process which is seeing the erosion of commercial public service broadcasting, successive attempts to delimit the BBC’s activities, and the ultimate triumph of a system of mass communications in which the values of public service, of diversity and universal access to a wide range of cultural goods at very low cost, are being gradually stuffed into the dustbin of history. 

DATELINE: 3 March, 2016


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