Governance at the BBC

‘If one were to order all mankind to choose the best set of rules in the world, each group would, after due consideration, choose its own customs; each group regards its own as being the best by far.’ – Herodotus

Reading about the row over governance at the BBC, I am struck by how right Herodotus was – that so many of us believe our views to be right and those of others to be wrong. Not just a bit wrong, but totally, completely and idiotically wrong. Often such views are set along party political, ideological or tribal lines – us against the others.

At bottom, the issue that the governments of all complexions have had with the BBC is that they perceive it to be biased and, more importantly, biased against them. And that it cannot properly be held to account because it is, fundamentally, unaccountable. There is a belief that the BBC is populated and governed by BBC people who believe that the BBC is always right and that any complaint is a reflection of the foolishness of the complainer. Hence the new government whitepaper on the future of the BBC.

I am not qualified to discuss or, frankly, interested in some of the issues that are at stake, but I do feel qualified to talk about governance, a subject about which I feel strongly, because at the heart of all this is the question of who governs. Who should run the BBC and how should they be selected? This is a tricky question and the solutions proposed so far are polarising the debate. The BBC needs to be accountable – the question is, to whom?

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? (Who guards the guards themselves?) – Juvenal

One of the objectives of introducing a unitary board at the BBC seems to be to create a clear and identifiable governing body. This would replace the somewhat byzantine hierarchy of committees that have run the BBC in the past and to address the issue of the BBC Trust being both its governing body and its regulator. But this crystallises the problem – who appoints the board members? The BBC seems to have thought of this board of being made up of BBC appointees, with perhaps a government-appointed chairman and deputy. Yet the government seems to have thought of a government-appointed majority and there are predictable voices raised that this will compromise BBC independence and bring an end to the world as we know it.

Setting aside the polarising rhetoric, I thought about the appointment of the BBC board from a governance perspective. From that viewpoint, it is clearly wrong for the BBC to have any say in appointing any of its own board members. That is like marking your own homework – and there is a strong track record of BBC insiders arguing that it is an organisation which is, as Lord Mountararat described the House of Lords, ‘not susceptible of any improvement whatsoever’.

There is, actually, a better argument for government appointment of the board, as the BBC is funded by a tax – the licence fee – and so it seems reasonable that our elected representatives have oversight. However, that will inevitably be presented by some – notably those not in government at the time and their supporters – as political interference with the BBC's oft-claimed political independence. In the hands of an unprincipled government, this could lead to it becoming a state broadcaster, which is in no-one’s interests.

For me, the best solution would be for a politically neutral body to select an initial BBC board. Once that is done, the BBC board could be treated as if it were the board of a public company: subject to periodic public election and appointing a 'nomination committee' to review future board membership. That would create a unitary board model without 'government interference' and without the current reliance on either government appointees or the BBC 'old boy’s network'.

The question of who that ‘neutral body’ might be, and whether the BBC should still be subject to overall Parliamentary oversight, remain to be addressed. My opinion is that the BBC should remain subject to Parliamentary oversight, and that cross-bench peers might be asked to take make the initial appointments. However, there remains a question as to whether that would be politically acceptable, not because they would not be up to it, but because neither side would agree with all their selections. Herodotus was right.

Peter Swabey is Policy and Research director at ICSA: The Governance Institute.

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