Jeremy Hunt questions independence of BBC Trust

Conservative shadow culture secretary Jeremy Hunt has raised concerns about the independence of the BBC’s governing body, the BBC Trust.

The South West Surrey MP today praised the Trust’s handling of an investigation into the BBC’s controversial local video proposals – which concluded that the plans could harm the regional press and provide little public value.

But he said that there were times when he had “found it difficult to distinguish between the BBC Trust’s view and the BBC’s view”.

The Trust was set up in 2007 to represent licence fee payers and hold the corporation to account – replacing the former BBC board of governors – but Hunt said the “jury was out” on whether it was truly independent.

“I think the BBC Trust’s a big improvement on what happened before where there was a rather cosy arrangement,” he told the Media Show on Radio 4 this afternoon.

“The long-term question is from the point of view of licence fee payers. They need to feel that the BBC is being held to account by someone who’s looking after their interests.”

Hunt added: “The BBC Trust won’t work if people feel it’s a kind of window dressing. I’m not myself entirely sure in my mind that it is wholly independent.”

Part of the Trust’s local video investigation – which examined BBC plans to add video content to 65 of its local websites – was carried out by Ofcom.

“With Ofcom you have a body that is clearly independent of broadcasters to champion the interests of viewers,” Hunt said.

“Viewers need to feel that when there’s a problem with the BBC there is a body there that is their champion. I don’t think we’re there yet [with the BBC Trust].”

Channel 4

Hunt also raised doubts about suggestions that Channel 4 should be privatised or given a share of the BBC licence fee to secure its future.

Channel 4 has warned that it faces a funding deficit of about £150m a year by 2012. It has already cut its programme budget and axed about 200 jobs – bringing its headcount down to 750.

One solution being considered by media regulator Ofcom is to allow Channel 4 to take the part of the licence fee currently used by the BBC to fund the digital TV switchover.

But Hunt said the idea of “top-slicing” the licence fee and giving it to the broadcaster was unlikely to make enough of a difference.

“My instinct is that it wouldn’t actually solve the problems that Channel 4 has,” he told the Media Show.

“Channel 4 have got a fundamental problem with their business model that £50m of the licence fee wouldn’t solve.”

Another option reported to be on the table is the privatisation of Channel 4, which was launched in 1982 to provide an alternative source of public service broadcasting to the BBC.

“Of all the options I think that’s the one I would most hesitate to take up,” Hunt said.

“If Channel 4 was privatised it would then become a for-profit organisation.”

He added: “In my mind I would find it difficult to marry the public service broadcasting obligations that Channel 4 currently has with the needs of shareholders to turn a profit.

“There is a risk that Channel 4 would become another commercial broadcaster.”

Hunt said it was important to differentiate between the specific problems facing Channel 4 and the wider issues affecting public service broadcasting as a whole.

“We are the party that set up Channel 4. We want competition and choice in the quality end of the TV market,” he said.

But he added: “We need to be careful not to let the problems of one organisation eclipse the broader issue.”

The BBC and the BBC Trust have both strongly opposed the idea of “top-slicing” – and any suggestions that Channel 4 could be given a stake in the corporation’s commercial arm, BBC Worldwide.

Ofcom is due to publish its final report on the future funding of public service broadcasting in the coming weeks.

Communications minister Stephen Carter will also address the issue of PSB in his wide-ranging Digital Britain report, expected at the beginning of February.

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