Lord Fowler is a former Chairman of the Conservative Party.
Threats to the independence of the BBC are not new and they have come from both major political parties . But there is no doubt that the White Paper to be published today represents a potential threat to the BBC. If reports, are accurate the White Paper will contain measures designed to increase ministerial control over the corporation. As Lord Patten, a former chairman of the BBC and the Conservative Party, has said it raises “ serious questions” over the BBC’s independence – and it is that question of independence which is so crucial.
The BBC has a worldwide reputation for the breadth and objectivity of its news. It is not a “state broadcaster”, acting as a spokesman for the Government in power. But the BBC’s reputation rests on it being clear that it is free of Government interference. We would be mad to put that reputation at risk .
There are a number of fundamental issues concerned with the White Paper. The new BBC board of directors (which is widely expected to be introduced) should be appointed for their independent judgement. They should not be Government placemen or women.
The idea of having not only 10 or 11 year government reviews, but also reviews in between would mean that the BBC would be under continual ministerial examination. This would be no way to run the BBC. The responsibility should be for the independent board of directors. Above all, the Government must put its proposals to Parliamentary debate and vote. Perhaps good sense has prevailed, and Ministers have backed down even at the eleventh hour. I hope so.
The very worst aspect of the Royal Charter is that it puts all power in the hands of whatever government happens to be in power when renewal comes around. So, back in 2006, the then Labour Government went ahead with plans for the BBC Trust in spite of all the criticism. There was no Parliamentary vote, no appeal – the Government decided.
The fervent hope this time with a Conservative Government is that the measures in the Royal Charter will be put to Parliament so that they can be not only debated but also voted upon. That would be the best way of safeguarding the independence of the BBC.