BBC Governance Challenges in Focus at U.K. TV Industry Convention

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UPDATED: Experts suggest a different regulator for the U.K. public broadcaster, as a top BBC executive says "we can make the current system work much better."

CAMBRIDGE, England – A group of U.K. TV industry experts discussed models for improving governance at the BBC a day after the U.K. public broadcaster said it would review its current set-up and the relationship between its management and its governing and overseeing body, the BBC Trust.

The news came after a report that highlighted excessive severance payments and a parliamentary hearing that showed deep divides and miscommunications between the BBC and the Trust.

STORY: Current, Former BBC Execs Grilled on Excessive Severance

The broadcaster said late Wednesday that it would "re-examine the relationship" between its executive team and the BBC Trust amid "questions about the BBC’s current governance systems." The goal is to provide more clarity about responsibilities, ensure effective decision making and better oversight.

The Royal Television Society convention here on Thursday added a panel about the BBC's governance challenges.

"We can make the current system work much better over the next three years," said James Purnell, the BBC's director, strategy and digital, from the audience during the panel discussion. He acknowledged that excessive severance payments and the definition of responsibilities are a serious problem.

He vowed that the BBC and BBC Trust would look at the broadcaster's current charter, which outlines the BBC's duties through 2016, to figure out what can be done "for the system to run more clearly and more efficiently."

But he also expressed concern about a Wednesday evening suggestion by Maria Miller, secretary of state for culture and media, that the National Audit Office should potentially get powers to investigate BBC financial issues that raise concerns, including excessive severance payments. Signaling concerns about the broadcaster's independence, Purnell said he wouldn't want BBC journalists to have to worry when asking tough questions of politicians that there could be repercussions.

On the panel, Tessa Jowell, former secretary of state of culture and media, said the BBC Trust must realize that it is not a cheerleader for the BBC, but speaks for license fee payers.

"I still believe it is the right structure for the BBC," she said when asked whether the BBC Trust, which she helped create, was still a timely institution. "Of course you have to fine-tune it...I would like to see the Trust step up and become much more assertive."

Terry Burns, chairman of Channel 4, said he and others had suggested an alternative to the BBC Trust. He had called for a chairman of the BBC and a separate body or commission to represent the interests of license fee payers, which are all U.K. taxpayers.

"I am a supporter of a unitary board and a separate regulator," Burns said, emphasizing he still liked the idea. He suggested that U.K. TV regulator Ofcom could serve as the regulatory body.

Christopher Bland, a former deputy chairman of Britain's Independent Television Authority and former chairman of the board of governors of the BBC, echoed that sentiment: "I do accept that the future requires a separation of governance and regulation."

The BBC "needs somebody else to decide annually and from time to time how good a job it is doing," he said

Could Ofcom take on responsibility of the BBC in addition to overseeing the likes of ITV and Channel 4? "Yes, simply because we got enough [regulators] already," Bland quipped.

E-mail: Georg.Szalai@THR.com
Twitter: @georgszalai

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