U.K. Looking to Abolish BBC Governing Body, Hand Oversight to Regulator (Report)

Chris Patten P

Ofcom, which already regulates other TV companies, would add the public broadcaster to its purview under the proposals.

LONDON – The British government is looking to abolish the BBC Trust, the governing body of U.K. public broadcaster BBC, and hand oversight to broadcast regulator Ofcom, the Sunday Times reported.

The move would put the BBC under the purview of the same agency that already oversees other British broadcasters.

The report came before a parliamentary hearing on Monday. BBC Trust chairman Chris Patten and former BBC director general Mark Thompson -- currently the CEO of The New York Times Company -- along with others, will appear at the hearing to provide testimony about excessive severance payments by the broadcaster in recent years.

STORY: Ex-BBC Boss: Chairman Misled U.K. Parliament Over Excessive Severance Payments 

When several instances of severance payouts, which exceeded contractual promises, were highlighted in a report by Britain's finance watchdog earlier this year, Patten said he was not aware of them and the Trust had no power in severance decisions. Thompson, in written testimony late in the week, said, though, that Patten's comments had misled parliament, arguing he had been aware of the payouts.

BBC critics and politicians have been outraged about the excessive severance payments as U.K. taxpayers help fund the BBC via a compulsory annual license fee.

The Times, part of Rupert Murdoch's News Corp, quoted John Whittingdale, the chairman of the House of Commons culture, media and sport select committee, as saying that the spat between Patten and Thompson was "incredibly unseemly."

The paper also quoted a senior source at the U.K. culture, media and sport department as saying: “It is clear that the Trust, which is both a cheerleader for the BBC and its regulator, does not work."

The government is therefore planning to hand regulatory oversight of the BBC to Ofcom, the Times said. It didn't immediately detail when that could happen, but the BBC's current charter, which sets out its public service duties and organizational set-up, expires at the end of 2016. The broadcaster and the government are expected to start negotiations about a new charter before then.

The 12-member BBC Trust was established in the broadcaster's charter that took effect in 2007. The Trust is operationally independent of BBC management and is tasked with setting the broadcaster's strategic priorities and ensuring it acts in the best interests of the public and license fee payers.

The first-ever chairman of the BBC Trust, Michael Lyons, has also called for a reorganization. "On the Trust itself, maybe it is time to move on," he told the Times. "But if there is a lesson to learn from all that's been happening at the BBC, it is that there should be more emphasis on its governance than its regulation."

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