BBC Trust chief makes case for its own abolition

Joseph O'Halloran | 05 March 2015

In TV at least, turkeys do indeed vote for Christmas as Chairman of the BBC Trust Rona Fairhead has made a compelling case for the axing of the organisation she leads, transferring accountability responsibilities to an external regulator.

On 26 February 2015 the part of the BBC designed to ensure that Licence Fee payers get best value for money bore the brunt of a stinging report on the corporation by the UK's powerful Culture, Media and Sport Committee which called outright for the abolition of the BBC Trust . It called for new arrangements to be made for the governance, regulation and oversight of the BBC, with the establishment of a new and independent Public Service Broadcasting Commission (PSBC) with the role of scrutinising the BBC's strategic plan, assessing the BBC's overall performance and determining the level of public funding allocated to the BBC and others. Committee chairman John Whittingdale said: "The BBC Trust has failed to meet expectations and should be abolished. It remains far too close to the BBC and blurs accountability of the BBC rather than it being a sharp and effective overseer of the BBC's performance as a public service institution."
Speaking at the Oxford Media Convention, a major industry event in the UK and attended by government members and delegates from all of the major broadcasters and publishers, Fairhead said that even though she hadn't been surprised by the focus on the future of the BBC's governance structure, she had been struck by just how much of the external debate is taken up by governance rather than purpose.
Turing to address the Select Committee's report, Fairhead said she welcomed its 'considered and timely contribution' to the debate on the BBC Trust's future and that she would make the case for intelligent reform, retaining the good but changing where necessary.
In practice this meant making wholesale changes to the organisation she heads. She said: "It needs to be recognised that there is no "perfect" governance system – ultimately it's about clarity of accountability and key relationships based on trust and respect. There is no doubt that there are tensions in the existing model...we will want to propose some changes to...regulatory processes so that they can keep adapting to the world outside the BBC." These proposed changes would include instead reviewing every service every five years, it will make more sense to conduct performance reviews where and when they are most needed; a total overhaul of existing public value tests; a greater range of tools to conduct governance.
Yet most significantly, Fairhead calls for more radical moves when it came to representing the licence fee payer and oversight of financial and operational management and strategy. In the existing structure the Trust shares responsibilities in these areas with the BBC Executive Board. She now felt that However, the strongest case for more significant change is in this area of oversight, where a fault line continues to lie in the blurred accountabilities between the Trust and the Executive board.
She said: "Responsibilities for strategy, financial and operational management need to sit with the BBC Executive – to allow them to respond to a rapidly changing environment. Responsibilities for regulation and broader accountability need to sit at one remove. At a minimum, we would want to propose some reform of the current model. To keep the Trust as part of the BBC but to be much more specific, in any future Charter, that its responsibilities were focused more clearly on regulation and accountability, with strategy and oversight left to the Executive Board. But the cleanest form of separation would be to transfer the Trust's responsibilities for regulation and accountability to an external regulator."
"In this model, the BBC would need to establish a stronger unitary Board, with an independent chairman and a majority of non-Executive Directors. They would take sole responsibility for running the BBC and its corporate governance. They would have their own responsibilities to listen and respond to their most important stakeholder – the British public. The external regulator would have responsibility for all matters of regulation and those matters of Licence Fee Payer representation which require a broader, more regulatory perspective."