BBC Trust

*First Published on PM Boris Johnson’s ‘Democracy Archives’ website – click here

The BBC Trust

Dr Robert Frew

“The extent to which the
audience feels its trust betrayed
… bodes ill for the BBC. In the
long term the loser will be
public-service broad­casting itself;
the winners the revengists of ‘old’
New Labour.”


Dr Robert Frew reflects on the role of the BBC Trust

The BBC Trust Chairman Sir Michael Lyons, has recently revealed he will not seek to be re-appointed in the role when his four-year term ends next May.

A few weeks ago, in a letter to Jeremy Hunt, Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport, Sir Michael said the Trust was robust, workable and effective … with much remaining to be done. So what of the background that led to the formation of the BBC Trust and its future ?

The BBC Trust replaced the BBC’s Board of Governors in January 2007. The Government said it was intended to ensure an “unprecedented obligation to openness and transparency”. But one of its first announcements was that the BBC Trust would review the corporation’s UK news coverage, which, whilst seeming even-handed to some, was seen by others as an insidious first step to totalitarianism : more like a politburo flexing its muscles.

Back in the time of Sir John Birt, BBC Director-General (DG) from 1992 to 2000 (now Lord Birt and blue-sky thinker), decisions were made to shift ultimate editorial control from managing editors to the DG. In retrospect one can only conjecture whether there was pressure from the Government at that time. Yet, despite a bitter strike by journalists, the transfer of editorial control went ahead.

When Andrew Gilligan, through proactive investigative journalism, blew apart Prime Minister Blair’s case for the Iraq war — a story that had somehow slipped from the editorial control of the then Director-General, Greg Dyke — the controversy exploded in the face of many, including Dyke and Blair. Subsequently the BBC Panorama programme on the Dr David Kelly affair showed, once and for all, that normal editorial control could not be exercised by one person, the Director General, and in this case editorial control was passed to Jana Bennett, the BBC’s Director of Television, and Lorraine Heggessey, Controller of BBC1.

It was very timely for the Government that the BBC Charter was due for renewal (for which read ‘renegotiation’). In January 2004 Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell gave a warning that the Hutton report on the Kelly affair would have a bearing on the renewal of the BBC’s charter. The government — livid and baying for blood over the Gilligan exposé — made substantial changes in governance a condition of the BBC’s staying intact. The Government would achieve this further control in two ways : generally, through control of the revenue from the television-licence fee (thereby limiting the corporation’s activities and forcing organisational change and rationalisation), and, in particular, by finding an indirect way to gain editorial control. That editorial control could best be achieved through the establishment of the BBC Trust.

The role of the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) in all of this was somewhat murky. Nicholas Kroll (now a BBC Trust Director) was at that time Deputy to the Permanent Secretary and DCMS Chief Operating Officer — he would become the new BBC board adviser on governance. The DCMS’s stance seemed like “Stuff Nolan !” (the [Nolan] Committee on Standards in Public Life) : the DCMS would have their man in place, open competition for the job or not.

Despite some murmurings from parliamentary opposition parties there was really no resistance to Kroll’s appointment as Director of Governance. Things could not have run more smoothly for the government : Kroll was its ideal candidate, a Tessa Jowell confidant accustomed to putting the boot in — they would have their insider.

Following the formation of the BBC Trust a mini-bureaucracy was created to ‘aid and support’ the Trust : an entity that in reality seems designed to provide committee-type answers to a ruling board that has neither the vision nor the competence to act as capable trustees : a politburo in all but name. The BBC Trust Unit has a group of 60 BBC staff that report direct to the BBC Trust, outside of the BBC management chain. In 2009/10 the cost of the Trust Unit was £10.5-million.

Some do say that Kroll has done a reasonable job : implementing the new governance, the new BBC Trust. The arrangement does bring the BBC’s governance into the twenty-first century but it also needs a twenty-first-century chairman — a chairman capable of providing leadership and vision — and a board doing the work of a board, fulfilling a fiduciary role rather than a controlling one.

In its editorial control and its relationship to the audience,  the BBC has failed to live up to one of its key core values : trust. The extent to which the audience feels its trust betrayed, exacerbated by an ill-thought out strategy for survival, bodes ill for the BBC. In the long term the loser will be public service broadcasting itself ; the winners the revengists of ‘old’ New Labour.

It is to be hoped that the new coalition Government will look again at the role of the BBC Trust — this legacy of New Labour — with a view to providing the BBC with a more modern, if somewhat commercial, governance model. Non-executive appointments to the BBC Trust might offer a quick fix. However, with the Trust currently costing £10.5-million p.a., BBC governance needs to be looked at again.

© 2010 Dr Robert Frew. All rights reserved.