Plan averted to use BBC for 'government messaging'

The Government tabled plans for the BBC to become a vehicle for ‘government messaging’during negotiations over the BBC licence fee settlement last year.

A report out today by the Culture Media and Sport Committee revealed that former BBC Trust chairman Sir Michael Lyons and BBC director general Mark Thompson felt the proposals crossed one of the BBC’s ‘red lines”

Lyons and Thompson told the committee – which was set to report on the BBC’s licence fee settlement and annual report – that during negotiation last October the Government put forward plans for the BBC to become a vehicle for ‘showing a large amount of information produced by the Central Office of Information – government messaging – to the public”.

The report added Lyons and Thompson felt this was ‘unacceptable to the BBC because it would have been a serious breach of the BBC’s editorial independence”.

The idea was put forward several times during the negotiation process before the Government eventually dropped the idea, yesterday’s Commons report.

Lyons considered the public information broadcasts proposal ‘a fundamental and wholly unacceptable attack on the BBC and one we’d fight tooth and nail”.

Today’s report concluded that the financial terms of the licence fee settlement – in which the BBC agreed to a six-year licence fee freeze at £145.50 and to take on extra funding responsibilities such as the BBC World Service – were ‘reasonable”.

But the corporation was criticised in several areas, including the appointment of US-based ‘migration manager’Guy Bradshaw to oversee the relocation of staff from London to BBC North’s new base in Salford, which the committee felt opened the BBC up to ‘self-inflicted and predictable ridicule from the media”.

The report said: ‘It is inevitable that a major project such as the development at Salford Quays will attract media attention, not least regarding staff relocation, and attention from the newspapers, which tend to be critical of the BBC.

‘Senior management would be well aware of this. To employ a ‘migration manager’, therefore, who commuted from his US home, simply opened the BBC up to self-inflicted and predictable ridicule.

‘Such decisions cannot simply be dismissed as inconsequential gaffes. They lower the esteem of the BBC, its senior management and the Trust in the eyes of the public and its own staff. It is a task for the incoming chairman to ensure that the BBC is seen always to lead by example in the future.”

The committee felt there was a ‘very strong case for reversing some or all of the planned reduction in funding to the BBC World Service,’and questioned the new partnership between the BBC and S4C.

Under the agreement reached last year the BBC will take over part of the funding of the Welsh-language channel.

The committee felt it was unclear how S4C would be able to retain its independence, and found it ‘extraordinary’that the Government and the BBC agreed the proposals without consultation and ‘without S4C having any notice or say at all”.

Committee chair John Whittingdale MP said the way the new licence fee was agreed – ‘a short, private, negotiation between the BBC and the Government’- did little to ‘inspire confidence in the independence, transparency or accountability of the process”.

He added: ‘The new chairman of the BBC trust [Lord Patten] has got a lot to get to grips with and we will look forward to an indication of the way the chairman and the director general are tackling the big questions on the future direction and shape of BBC services in our next annual hearing with them.’

Responding to today’s report, a BBC Trust spokesperson said: ‘The Trust does not underestimate the challenges presented by the new licence fee settlement.

‘We and the BBC Executive have been working on plans to live within this new financial reality, which we have said will inevitably involve some tough choices.

‘The new strategy for the BBC published last year provides a clear framework for these decisions, and we have always said that we will consult the public before any final decisions are taken.”

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