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Jeremy Hunt's BBC record

By Tim Montgomerie

Earlier today I wrote about the problem of institutional bias at the BBC. My basic concern is that the majority of BBC programmes do not energetically represent the interests of taxpayers - or certainly not half as energetically as they represent public sector interests. There are honourable exceptions. One senior BBC staffer pointed me to the Panorama programme that highlighted the failure of the educational establishment to sack incompetent teachers. It was a powerful programme and I praised it at the time. Programmes like BBC2's Daily Politics are also consistently good at asking questions from the right, as well as the left.

HUNT It seems a good moment to record what has happened at the BBC since Jeremy Hunt became Culture Secretary. Mr Hunt is limited in his direct powers but he has made it clear that he expects the BBC to become more responsible in its use of licence fee money in an age when most public sector budgets are being cut sharply.

So what has happened? Five things stand out:

  1. BBC Director General Mark Thompson finally conceded that he would publish the pay of top stars (albeit in bands). This was long a demand of Mr Hunt. Mr Thompson has also promised cuts in top pay - proving the rule that transparency is a great ally of the taxpayer/ licence fee payer.
  2. Thompson has also cracked down on pension rights at the BBC. This is the issue that has caused the strike action that threatens to disrupt the coverage of the Tory Conference in October. The strike may be about remuneration but the timing is decidedly political.
  3. Earlier this week, Sir Michael Lyons, ex-Labour councillor, said that he would not seek a second term as BBC Chairman. My guess is that he jumped before he was pushed. In The Times this week David Elstein penned (£) a powerful critique of his record as Chairman of the BBC Trust.
  4. The BBC has offered a two-year freeze in the licence fee, partly to pre-empt the possibility of Mr Hunt cutting it.
  5. The Culture Secretary is also pressing for the National Audit Office to get access to the BBC's accounts. "One of the biggest issues with the BBC," he told The Telegraph, "is there seem to be a steady flow of stories where the way that licence fee payers' funds are used is not appropriate. It is absolutely essential that the NAO has access."

As Paul Goodman reported recently, Jeremy Hunt has also stressed the importance of "red lines" around its 'empire'. There were times during the Labour years when the BBC was so expansionary that it threatened to crowd out all private media initiatives.

I would prefer a much bolder approach and was a fan of the idea of top-slicing the licence fee. The BBC is able to produce very high quality programmes but not because of the institution itself but because of its monopoly control of licence fee revenue. I think we could get the benefits of high quality public service broadcasting with the added benefit of more diversity in that programming if the BBC was forced to share a small portion of its revenues. Peter Whittle of the New Culture Forum set out the possibilities in January 2008. Rather than creating a new channel of the kind Peter proposed, the money could alternatively help ITV deliver better regional, or better still micro-local, programming.

Unfortunately, even before the Coalition deal with the very pro-BBC Liberal Democrats, BBC reform was not a Hunt-Cameron-Vaizey priority. In bed with the LibDems the solid progress made by Jeremy Hunt, as outlined above, is about the best we can hope for.


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