There was a great debate in the Lords today on the governance of the BBC. It was initiated by Lord Inglewood, chair of the Select Committee on Communications. I am very fortunate to be a member, fortunate because there are relatively few committees and many peers would like to participate, and fortunate because there are few issues as vital and topical right now as Communications. The debate drew attention to the 2011 Report of the Select Committee on BBC Governance and Regulation, which made recommendations about internal and external aspects of the BBC and how it is scrutinised. Not unexpectedly, the debate included contributions from the many peers who have specialist knowledge of the BBC and broadcasting – journalists, broadcasters, former Governors, Chairmen and Director-Generals.
One of the most interesting and controversial recommendations of the Report was that the way the BBC handles complaints from its audience should be clarified, speeded up and more objective. Some thought that all complaints should ultimately be settled by OFCOM, others that the last word should lie with an external Ombudsman (most public services and industries today have an Ombudsman to give an impartial ruling on complaints). The BBC response to this recommendation was unenthusiastic, but it is now moving towards a review of complaints handling.
The Select Committee on Communications was set up by the House in 2006 and its establishment was, to quote Lord Fowler, “a triumphant piece of good judgment by the House, for we are now living through the most tumultuous period in media history in modern memory.” Now and in the next few years we are all involved with the issues of phone hacking, the Leveson Inquiry, injunctions, digital technology, social media, broadband, plurality of media ownership, the freedom of journalists to report in war zones (remembering the terrible death of Marie Colvin in Syria), a big new Communications Bill and the renewal of the BBC Charter. Never was it more important to have a Lords Committee examining these matters and questioning the government about them. Yet rumours abound that the Communications Committee is to be wound up and replaced by a series of ad hoc committees looking at media issues. This would be a failure of responsibility and a diminution of democracy. Ad hoc committees would be too much under government control, for the ministers would choose the topics, whereas the Select Committee chooses its own subjects for survey. They would also lose the continuity, collective memory and expertise of the staff and the Committee members. Nor would such a move save money. It should be recalled that Select Committees belong to the House, not to the Government. I can think of no innocent reason for wanting to disband the Committee, and there will be a terrific fight if anyone tries to.