Once again MPs are united against the BBC. A cross-party committee of MPs has demanded the BBC be accountable to Parliament. Surely public eyebrows will rise in unison at MPs criticising 'spending public money without fully analysing costs and benefits'. But behind the pot-kettle-black, do they have a point?
The BBC has undeniably made a few foolhardy decisions of late. In trying to maintain public interest the corporation has felt pressured to bid for popular names (infamously Jonathan Ross). But there have also been some fantastic decisions. The corporation persevered with their decision to base BBC Scotland in Glasgow despite severe recruitment difficulties early on. They have invested heavily in new talent, there as elsewhere (the majority of people that work in UK private media were trained at the BBC), and in the process fulfilled their mandate of being a truly UK-wide broadcaster.
The BBC is not beyond criticism, and it is right to question excessive spending, especially on pay at the top. But we are in murky water when MPs start demanding that the BBC is accountable to them, and must justify every pound spent, every decision made. The BBC plays a vital role democratic politics (a point we have made here before), and must maintain independence from Parliament.
So is there a way to balance accountability with independence? There is. And – who knew?! – it already exists. Every 10 years the Charter review scrutinises the BBC’s role, activities and budget. When next up for review – in 2016 – this process should be rigorous and ensure value for money from the Beeb. But once the financial settlement is complete, like it or not, the BBC must be left to do its job. That is what independence means.
If criticisms that the BBC has too many, overpaid managers ring true, it may well be that the unrelenting attacks are a driving force. Organisations that lack the freedom to take risks and make mistakes see middle management multiply in a bid to disperse accountability for ill-fated decisions. Meddling MPs may well end up with a cowed corporation of risk-averse managers, with fewer funds to support the talent and creativity it thrives on. That, surely, would be a waste of tax-payers money.
Tess Lanning and Laura Chappell