I have served on a number of public sector transparency bodies and have a long standing interest in media regulation. It’s always puzzled me just how far behind modern public practice the BBC is on transparency. And the recent reviews into BBC activities suggest that opacity is in fact a major problem. As Tony Hall is emailing his thoughts on the future of the BBC here’s an email he could send:
We need to rebuild public trust in the BBC as a modern public body, fit for purpose meeting the highest ethical and governance standards. The BBC has an especially high burden of responsibility unique amongst all arts institutions in that our funding status gives us powers in law to take money from people even if they don’t want to give it. And the BBC through its news services plays a critical role in the nation’s democratic life, holding public figures to account and helping people understand current affairs.
At the BBC we cannot apply lesser standards to ourselves than we would expect of others in this or similar positions.
A striking feature of recent years has been the huge strides made in transparency of public bodies. In the UK the belated introduction of freedom of information legislation, in the USA President Obamas directive on transparency, the drive to open data and at a UN level the Open Government Partnership.
The BBC has historically resisted calls for increased transparency into its affairs: trying to keep out the National Audit Office, strictly limiting the scope of FOI, having salary information dragged out like a rotten tooth. Even recently trying to defend a position that the Pollard Review papers were not covered by FOI even as we were publishing them.
The defence of this has been that we must protect our journalism. At times of course this is right. Perhaps there is an irreducible core of sensitive journalistic activity that needs to remain private, just as politicians argue that they need a private decision making space under FOI. But I am concerned that this argument has gone too far. In the modern internet world, now and in the future people won’t trust secretive institutions.
I hinted yesterday at my disquiet about senior salary levels – if the BBC had been left to its own devices these would probably not have been published. The levels would still be wrong and it would be our guilty secret. That is no way to run a modern public body. The Pollard review also brings into question how much our journalism processes actually benefit from being secret. A future for modern journalism, especially in the internet era should be open and transparent. I want a BBC where we have nothing to hide and the world can see the brilliant things we are doing with public money.
So I am commissioning a rapid review of transparency in the BBC conducted with outsiders with the presumption that the BBC should be radically more transparent than at present. Presuming also that the BBC becomes a model of transparency in comparison to other broadcasters and public bodies worldwide. I personally would like to see a new Trustee [corrected from Governor - WP] specifically tasked with increasing transparency and holding the organisation to account, but that would be for others to decide. The review will do as much of its work as possible in public and report within three months. I should welcome colleagues views by reply to this email, all of which will be published on our transparency blog I have set up today.
Comments are welcome as long as they are on topic and polite. These views are of course my own and don’t represent those of any body I serve on nor any of my clients.