Peers say Ofcom should be final judge of BBC fairness

The
Government is facing a controversial demand to make media regulator
Ofcom the final judge as to whether BBC journalists are fair and
accurate.

A cross-party committee of peers this week called for
the watchdog body to be strengthened to take on the job of hearing and
judging complaints against the BBC.

Complaints would still be
considered by the BBC first, but the move would mean that Ofcom’s new
role would be similar to that of a court of appeal.

The BBC will see the call as a threat to its editorial independence.

The Government has also been against widening Ofcom’s powers.

When
she published her green paper on the BBC in March, Media Secretary
Tessa Jowell opposed the idea of letting Ofcom oversee the BBC as a
whole.

But the committee, chaired by former Times journalist Lord
Fowler, told the minister: “We believe that in order to secure clearly
independent regulation and clarity for complaints, Ofcom should take
final responsibility for BBC programme regulation.

“Ofcom’s role should be to adjudicate on appeals against decisions on complaints made by the BBC board.

Ofcom’s duties should be similar to those of a court of appeal.

“However,
the BBC board would be responsible for monitoring the accuracy of BBC
output and putting in place measures to safeguard and improve the
accuracy of BBC reports.”

To reduce the risk of interference, the peers want a dramatic reduction in government powers over the BBC.

To
achieve this they called for the BBC’s charter, drawn up by government
behind closed doors, to be replaced by an act of parliament, open to
amendment and public scrutiny.

The peers said controversy over
the BBC’s reporting of Iraq, David Kelly’s death and the Hutton Inquiry
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
Government is committed to proceeding with the renewal of the charter
next year and has rejected a similar recommendation from the Commons
media select committee.

Whitehall also moved swiftly to rebuff
another demand for the Government to abandon its plans to replace the
existing board of governors with a BBC trust to oversee the corporation
and a new management board.

Jowell told the peers in advance of their report that she intends to proceed with her shake-up of the way the BBC is governed.

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