Has anyone spotted anything from the BBC during Charter Review about how the broadcaster can make itself more transparent? Next week the UK government and civil society will play a leading role in the UN Open Government Partnership Summit in Mexico on modern forms of transparent public administration. The colossal OGP summit, held last year in London demonstrates radical global trends in transparency, an area in which the BBC seems to be behind.
Over the years I have written about the BBC’s opacity. In 2010 I picked up a Michael Lyons speech – the then Chair of the BBC Trust:
‘To the public the BBC can appear spendthrift when it is unclear how the BBC is using the money the public gives it. This underlines the need for much greater financial control and transparency by the BBC….
…The answer lies in much more openness by the BBC. Openness about how it’s spending the public’s money….The third area where we are asking the BBC to go the extra mile is in increased transparency over how the BBC spends the public’s money’
Michael Lyons, then months from the end of his term didn’t seem to do much about this, even though he was speaking quite narrowly about finance. Four years later, the inquisitive Steve Hewlett pointed out in the Guardian just how ludicrously opaque the BBC Worldwide accounts still are. As I wrote in 2010, there was an opportunity then for the BBC to get on board the open data movement, then being proselytized by the coalition government. But the BBC didn’t take that opportunity.
The BBC explains that:
‘the [FOI] Act does not apply to material held for the purposes of creating the BBC’s output (TV, radio, online etc), or material which supports and is closely associated with these creative activities’
The BBC as a public service/state broadcaster is even exempt from the new 2015 Re-Use of Public Sector Information Regulations that, for the first time include many cultural institutions.
Since 2010 a whole series of scandals have rocked the BBC, in which opacity about what they do hasn’t helped. In 2013 Tony Hall, new in the job seemed to express disquiet about the senior salaries scandal. It’s clear that, if there hadn’t been some transparency on those salaries the BBC would still be paying them. So in 2013 I wrote an imaginary day one email from Tony Hall to staff that I think still stands today, echoing Obama’s day one action in his first Presidential Directive on Transparency:
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 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.
Now in the Charter Review process the BBC is setting out how it proposes to reform itself for the challenges ahead. But I haven’t seen anything yet on transparency. My own experience of using FOI to obtain straightforward information from the BBC has been poor. I attended a conference on FOI the other day at which a BBC journalist gave a great talk on a panel about how to use FOI to open up secretive organisations. And I asked the panel if the BBC should now be opened up more to FOI.
He was somewhat diffident in reply and afterwards I had a vigorous conversation with a BBC policy executive present in the audience. However, I was struck by an observation on my question from another panelist, Robin Hopkins a barrister specialising in FOI – he drew out a judgement from, I think the Information Tribunal which spoke about protecting ‘what is sacred’ from FOI – for instance the deliberations in a jury room. For me that means protecting things at the heart of a public purpose that transparency would subvert or even destroy.
For Charter Review, looking ahead another ten years, the position I set out in the imaginary Tony Hall note above largely stands – protect an irreducible core of journalism information, but open up everything else. So the public should be able to find out year on year how much the BBC spends on and how it staffs say Newsnight or Look East, discussions by senior staff about the future of the show, but perhaps not editorial emails within the show itself. Although modern practices in open journalism suggest that an open news process is more robust than a closed one.
Yet for light entertainment paid for with public money there is less need for secrecy. We should be able to ask for a huge range of information about say Top Gear – where some early transparency might have to led to more questioning and checking of BBC top talent than they were prepared to do internally. Even the FCO is releasing material on the Argentina fracas. We saw in the Sony email leaks some eye watering behaviours of the media industry – after Top Gear can we be certain some of these aren’t happening on the licence fee payers money?
Why should decisions about Bargain Hunt, Footiepups or Mr Tumble, all fantastic shows be even more protected than Prince Charles’ emails or advice on the Iraq war?
The decision by the BBC Trust to abolish itself as an internal/external regulator in fact makes a stronger case for more transparency – we can’t be certain that any new arrangement will work. So a prudent risk management measure would be to open up far more to the public as above. This should be done in a prudent way, setting a date 18 months in advance when the new measures would come into force to allow behaviors to change and have no retrospectivity.
It would be great to see a well rounded set of proposals from the BBC itself on how it could open itself up as a modern public body in the internet age while still preserving its core public purpose.
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