Guardian boss backs BBC audit scrutiny

By David Rose

Guardian Media Group chief executive Sir Bob Phillis has backed a
controversial move to expose the BBC to more parliamentary scrutiny,
arousing fears that its editorial freedom could be threatened.

The Commons’ powerful public accounts committee (PAC), and auditor
general Sir John Bourn, this week sought the help of peers to persuade
Media Secretary Tessa Jowell that the National Audit Office (NAO)
should be allowed to investigate whether all BBC activities represent
value for money.

So far the BBC has resisted, but only by
agreeing to allow the NAO to investigate areas it approves, and on
condition that its report goes to the corporation. One inquiry into the
BBC’s investment in Freeview has already been published.

But
Bourn told a cross-party committee of peers investigating the renewal
of the BBC charter that he wanted to select the area to be probed, and
to report to the PAC, which could then cross-examine BBC bosses.

Edward
Leigh, Tory chairman of the PAC, acknowledged in a letter to committee
chairman Lord Fowler that some commentators perceived the request as “a
threat to the BBC’s artistic and editorial freedoms”.

And Bourn
sought to reassure peers that the work could be undertaken “in ways
that did not invade editorial independence or act in a way to
disincline the BBC to do adventurous things”.

Phillis was
managing director of the BBC World Service – which is subject to full
NAO scrutiny – in 1993/94 and said he had found its work valuable.

“I don’t think the BBC should have anything to fear from scrutiny by the NAO,” he told peers.

But some expressed misgivings. Labour
peer Lord Maxton told Bourn: “Most MPs would say the BBC employs far
too many people in this building for the sort of services they provide.”

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