Jowell rules out Ofcom as BBC accuracy watchdog

By David Rose

Media Secretary Tessa Jowell is planning a shake-up to ensure that
complaints against BBC reporters in future are subject to independent
scrutiny.

New safeguards will be included in a Government white paper to
reassure critics that their complaints will be “considered
independently of the interests”

of BBC managers.

But Jowell
rejected a demand that she should strip the BBC governors of their
traditional role of ensuring the BBC’s impartiality and accuracy, and
hand it over to media regulator Ofcom.

A new watchdog body, the
BBC Trust, will replace the governors with the job of representing
licence fee payers and safeguarding the independence of the BBC.
Day-to-day management of the BBC will be left to an executive board
chaired by the director general.

Ofcom will remain responsible
for monitoring the BBC’s compliance with its programme code. The media
regulator is empowered to order the BBC to make a correction and even
fine it.

A cross-party committee of peers led by former Times
journalist Lord Fowler had urged the Government to extend Ofcom’s
powers to allow it to examine complaints alleging inaccuracy in BBC
reporting.

The peers’ move followed criticism over the way the
governors handled the row over Andrew Gilligan’s claim on the Today
programme that Downing Street “sexed up” the threat posed by Saddam
Hussein to justify war against Iraq. The row claimed the scalps of
Gavyn Davies, who quit as chairman, and Greg Dyke, who was sacked as
director general.

Giving the Government’s response, Jowell said:
“The new governance arrangements will establish a clearer and more
distinct role for the BBC Trust which should provide greater confidence
to complainants that their concerns will be considered independently of
the interests of the executive.

“Further details of how these
arrangements will be implemented, and how appeals will be dealt with
under the proposed new governance structure, will be included in the
forthcoming white paper.”

The Government has also rejected a plea
by peers for the BBC to be subject to an act of parliament rather than
a royal charter, drawn up by the Government behind closed doors.

The
peers said that the controversy over the BBC’s reporting of the Iraq
war suggested “the BBC’s current constitutional and funding
arrangements are not sufficiently robust to prevent unease within the
BBC about its future should it upset the Government of the day”.

But
the minister said that an act of parliament “risks making the BBC more
open to ad hoc Government and parliamentary intervention.

“The best way of giving the BBC the independence and stability it needs will be to renew the royal charter for 10 more years.”

Lord
Fowler said the Government backed the continuation of the royal charter
“because they control it”. He added: “The result is that the
arrangements for the BBC over the next 10 years will be settled in a
deal between the Secretary of State and the chairman of the BBC.

“This
does not secure the independence of the BBC and is no way to ensure the
proper oversight of nearly £3bn a year of the public’s money the
corporation receives.”

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