Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Ofcom vs. BBC

The UK government's TV regulator, Ofcom, remains locked in a battle with the BBC over ultimate control of the public corporation. According to Media Guardian, Ofcom has challenged reform proposals set in a government green paper on the BBC's royal charter, published today. Ofcom argues that the proposal to maintain an independent BBC board - called the "BBC Trust", replacing the old Board of Governors - is not radical enough. Instead, Ofcom
    is in favour of proposals made by the government independent adviser, Lord Burns, who suggested six months ago that another quango should be set up to slice up public funding, a proposal that won the backing of Lord Birt, Tony Blair's "blue skies" adviser and the former director general of the BBC. Ofcom says the proposed "BBC Trust" should "evolve into an external independent body in the future".

Ofcom seems to like the idea of a new, independent body (doubetless under its own oversight) that will give other UK broadcasters a slice of the BBC license fee pie. At one point, culture secretary Tessa Jowell, seemed inclined to agree, though she has apparently backed off. The green paper (government jargon for a "a tentative government report of a proposal without any commitment to action; the first step in changing the law [prior to] the production of a white paper") seems to keep BBC reforms to a minimum.

Back in March, when Jowell announced the continuation of the license fee, a new BBC Trust, and a new 10-year charter, she said that the BBC was "as much a part of British life as the NHS" and should retain its independence from the government. But worryingly, she also said that, "like the NHS it faces the need to change so that it can be as effective in the future as it has been in the past." She also "recommended that its funding should be reviewed within the next charter period," and this is the opening that Ofcom seeks to exploit.

Ofcom, or the Office of Communications has been at daggers drawn with the BBC more or less since it was formed in late 2003 (go back to the Media Guardian story and scroll to the numerous linked stories at the bottom to get a flavor of the debate). Although Ofcom's designed to be an overall regulator of all British broadcasting, replacing five different regulatory agencies, it was never given ultimate authority over the BBC. This is something it would very much like to rectify.


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