Jowell: journalism, not junk

By David Rose and Caitlin Pike

The
need for BBC journalism to be fair, accurate and impartial is to be
written into the corporation’s Charter when it is renewed next year.

Outlining
her long-awaited green paper Media Secretary Tessa Jowell said that the
Government is to rewrite the Charter to prevent the BBC from dumbing
down to chase ratings, and ensure it features more prime-time
documentaries, original drama, arts and current affairs programmes.

The
BBC will continue to receive its £2.8bn annual licence fee for the next
10 years, but only on condition that it strengthens its mission
statement to inform, educate and entertain.

As expected, the
board of governors is to be scrapped and replaced by a panel of
independent trustees to oversee the corporation, and a new executive
board to deliver the its services.

But while informing the BBC
that it must maintain its commitment to local and regional as well as
national news, the Government warned this week that before any decision
is taken to launch ultra-local digital TV news services, they must be
subject to a public value test and market impact assessment.

Jowell
made clear the Government is looking to the BBC to implement the
recommendations of Ron Neil, former director of BBC news and current
affairs, who reviewed editorial standards following the Hutton Report.

Jowell
said: “We welcome the BBC’s recognition and implementation of the core
recommendations of the Neil report -concerning fairness, precision and
the need for thorough training of journalists. These will be reflected
as appropriate in the next BBC Charter and Agreement.”

She added:
“The BBC should continue to inform the public and increase our
understanding of the world through news, information and analysis of
current events and ideas. Its news and current affairs coverage should
set standards of quality and should be resourced accordingly. It should
continue to engage the widest possible cross-section of the UK
population with differently targeted services including BBC Online.”

Director
general Mark Thompson, asked by Press Gazette if the Government’s call
to maintain editorial standards conflicted with plans to cut
journalists’ jobs, replied: “We are actually going to increase funding
across BBC journalism and invest more money in many areas, including
the Middle East and Europe. Overall we are going to put money in not
take it out.”

Although Jowell’s recommendations went further than
the BBC’s top brass wanted by scrapping the governors altogether, BBC
journalists welcomed the fact that the Corporation was not being put
under media regulator Ofcom.

“It would have been worse if it had
been an outside monitoring system because then we would be more
susceptible to political pressure,” said one insider.

However,
some believe in the wake of the Hutton Report the proposals will allow
the Government to tighten its grip on BBC journalism.

“It is a
bit Big Brother is watching you,” was one comment on the idea of
editorial standards being written into the charter.

On a day
marked by protests by BBC journalists in Scotland, Wales and across the
English regions against plans to axe jobs, NUJ national broadcasting
organiser, Paul McLaughlin said he was disappointed that the Government
had not commented on the “massive cuts” being made by the director
general.

“It’s one thing to talk about needing to improve
training for journalists, but at the same time all the trainers are
being sacked because of the cuts,” said McLaughlin. “We are also very
concerned that requirements for accuracy and impartiality are being
written into the agreement and the Charter.

Once you’ve written
that in you have the prospect of the BBC being called to account by the
Government – it appears to be a back-handed swipe in the light of
Hutton.”

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