Open to scrutiny 

4 April 2011 tbs.pm/1255

Ever since the last administration reclassified the UK TV licence fee as a tax (as opposed to a service charge) in 2006, there has been a theoretical danger that the BBC could be opened up to a full audit from the National Audit Office (NAO) as a consequence of its tax-receiving status.

Why ‘danger’, you may ask, since the BBC should really have nothing to hide from its licence fee-payers?

Well the answer is that the NAO is effectively controlled by a Public Accounts Committee which is staffed by MP’s, and the BBC supposedly has to be independent of any political pressure – direct or indirect – that could be exerted by MP’s regardless of their political persuasion.

Then there’s the related issue of why the BBC Trust hasn’t (yet) agreed to a full independent annual audit of the BBC’s operations in order to stave off such a threat of NAO intervention, which also concerns the exact nature as to how the BBC operates as a broadcaster as opposed to any ‘ordinary’ government department.

To understand this conundrum further, we must appreciate that if the BBC is to continue showing sporting events such as Formula 1 motor racing (regardless of its merits; that’s a separate debate altogether), then it sometimes has to enter into financial agreements that for various reasons have to remain confidential.

On top of this there are existing private agreements between the BBC and presenters/staff that are considered to be normal within a media industry context. To sum up, being a broadcaster sometimes involves doing things that are kept secret from other broadcasters, which in turn upsets those who don’t appreciate the need for secrecy.

At one time it was sufficient that the BBC was simply a “black box” into which the licence fee flowed in and (often) excellent programmes and services flowed out the other side for public consumption, as long as the BBC was outwardly showing a commitment to public service values and the public felt they were getting reasonable good value for money.

Also bear in mind that other commercial broadcasters are usually just as secretive in their operations, and if the BBC wishes to operate in the same space as these commercial entities then it occasionally must abide by a similar set of confidentiality rules where appropriate.

On top of this, bad decisions made by BBC management in recent times have in turn unnecessarily weakened any genuine attempts to strengthen autonomy, with accusations such as how can the BBC be trusted with secrets when they could hide waste/inefficiency/laziness/bias/complicity (choose as appropriate based on your prejudices)?

Not knowing exactly what happens inside the bowels of the BBC, combined with superficial symptoms of bad management on the outside (namely, desperately trying to keep the BBC in one piece by fighting fires all over the place) has raised suspicion and mistrust outside of the corporation, naturally handing ammo to the BBC’s enemies.

(Badly-written strategy reviews showing basic ignorance of the very services you’re meant to be managing don’t exactly help either.)

A relative lack of open communication between the BBC and its licence fee-payers really isn’t helping here at present; programmes and websites alone are insufficient to fill a void of misunderstanding and occasional resentment that threatens to escalate if not addressed in the longer term.

And with old ghosts that refuse to go away, such as tales of Jonathan Ross and his production company previously being paid “an eye-watering amount” of BBC1’s total budget (partly vindicating previous tabloid rumours), getting any politician to fully trust the BBC is now going to be a real struggle at best, regardless of any rationale used.

I predict that any requests to run government and community advertising will be easy to dismiss compared to the potential for a major financial auditing crisis.

Mark Thompson may have survived previous scandals but fending off political interference in the name of alleged transparency will be a real test for himself, the BBC and the BBC Trust; the latter perhaps being the very last line of defence the corporation has against external manipulation.

Because if any future BBC audit flags major discrepancies that cannot be easily explained or excused, Thompson’s job is very likely to be on the line along with the Trust’s credibility for having backed him so far (relatively speaking), so the Trust will inevitably have to show some real teeth to protect both itself and the BBC.

To conclude, the Trust will now have to stand up for the BBC’s interests like never before, even if the BBC’s management superficially appears to have a death wish.