BBC regulation faces overhaul after criticism

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The BBC is to face an early overhaul of how it is regulated in a move designed to calm mounting criticism of governance standards.

Speaking to the Royal Television Society in Cambridge on Wednesday, Maria Miller, culture secretary, said the government would give increased powers to the National Audit Office to probe areas of concern. Separately, the public service broadcaster said it would conduct a formal review of its internal governance procedures.

Ms May described Monday’s heated exchanges between past and current BBC directors in a parliamentary hearing as “a grim day for [the corporation’s] senior management”.

She said “ongoing confusion over where the roles and responsibilities of the executive stop and the [BBC] Trust start,” had to be “addressed”.

The steps to increase regulatory oversight of the BBC come ahead of the introduction of its next royal charter in 2017 which could change the broadcaster’s remit and governance structure. Discussions over the charter are expected to begin next year.

A senior official at the department of culture, media and sport, said: “The structure [at the BBC] is obviously flawed. There is ongoing confusion and problems and we can’t wait until 2017 to fix it.”

The comments are the clearest sign yet that the government has concerns that regulation under the BBC Trust – the broadcaster’s governing body set up in 2007 – is not working properly.

Several media commentators, including Sir Christopher Bland, former chairman of the BBC, have said they do not expect the Trust, chaired by Lord Patten, to survive beyond its remit, which expires at the end of 2016.

The BBC’s internal review would provide clarity about how responsibilities are divided between the Trust and BBC executives, a joint letter from Lord Patten and Lord Hall, the BBC’s director-general, stated.

It would also seek to “ensure effective decision making and accountability” and “avoid duplication and overlap, including in areas such as remuneration and audit”.

The review follows criticism of a series of lavish severance packages for departing BBC executives.

Under the measures announced by Ms Miller on Wednesday, the NAO will have greater powers to conduct investigations at the BBC at any time and on any matter. Currently the audit office meets with BBC executives on a quarterly basis to discuss potential probes.

In a statement, the BBC Trust said: “We value the work done by the NAO and have had an increasingly good working relationship with them. We will look forward to talking about this further.”

Therese Coffey, a Conservative backbencher who used to sit on the DCMS select committee before being promoted into junior government ranks, welcomed Ms Miller’s speech, saying: “She appears to be going a lot further than the government has in the past.”

Politicians said the culture secretary was trying to get on the front foot on the BBC after being criticised by some Tory colleagues over her handling of the Leveson inquiry into press ethics and her backing for gay marriage.

“Miller knows after Monday that she needs to be seen to be doing something,” said one Conservative. “There is a risk that the Tories will be portrayed as BBC-haters but I think we need to have this discussion.”

In her speech, Ms Miller acknowledged the BBC as a “phenomenal worldwide brand, a mighty partner and a formidable competitor”.

But she said there was “a risk of events . . . overshadowing the unstinting work of [BBC] staff”.

“This must not be allowed to happen. The corporate dramas of the BBC should never eclipse its actual dramas.”

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