The end of the BBC Trust looks increasingly nigh, after the body’s own chairman said its powers should be passed to a new organisation.
Rona Fairhead was appointed to run the organisation last year after Chris Patten resigned for health reasons. She told the Oxford Media Convention on Wednesday that the current model — where the trust exercises oversight of the BBC executive — suffered from “blurred accountabilities”.
“The cleanest form of separation would be to transfer the trust’s responsibilities for regulation and accountability to an external regulator,” said Ms Fairhead, a former chief executive of the Financial Times Group. As part of her proposal, the BBC’s strategic decisions would be taken by a single board, comprising executives and non-executives.
The BBC Trust was set up in 2007, following criticism of how the broadcaster had handled a controversial news story about the 2004 Iraq war. Its primary responsibility is to look out for the interests of licence fee payers who contribute £3.7bn a year to the BBC.
However, the body failed to prevent the failure of a high-profile IT project, the Digital Media Initiative, or generous severance packages for senior executives. Last year Lord Patten unexpectedly departed, and the trust failed to fill two vacancies due to disagreements between Ms Fairhead and Sajid Javid, the culture minister.
A committee of MPs last week proposed the creation of a Public Service Broadcasting Commission that would have responsibilities not just for the BBC but the other public service broadcasters: ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5.
Ms Fairhead said she had “some concerns” about such a commission. “We question its ability to exert real authority if it were unable to set BBC service licences and editorial standards,” she said.
Ms Fairhead’s own position has been questioned by some commentators. She is a non-executive at HSBC, the subject of an investigation into tax avoidance by the BBC’s Panorama programme, although she has no editorial involvement.
In her speech, Ms Fairhead also highlighted the trust’s “notable and enduring successes”, including its role evaluating the BBC’s market impact and driving its cost-savings programme. The trust’s consultation on BBC Three — the youth-focused channel that the broadcaster wants to make online only — has so far received about 23,000 responses, she said.
“It’s clear the BBC’s reputation has been damaged by a spate of issues in recent years, though somewhat heartening that public faith is returning,” she said.
Any reform of the trust is likely to take place as part of the BBC’s charter review, due by early 2017.
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