Belfast Telegraph

Why the lack of transparency at the BBC is tarnishing its crown

By Ed Curran

The BBC has announced it is changing direction - but will it make any difference? It is important to note that the BBC is not saving £600m. The money is merely going to other core areas of broadcasting.

"The BBC must not be attempting to do everything," the Director-General Mark Thompson now belatedly accepts. But his proposals could - and should - go much further.

My first boss, Lord Ken Thomson, who built a media empire in the 1960s which included the Belfast Telegraph, famously described his ownership of Scottish Television as "a licence to print money".

Many of us believe that the BBC, with an annual budget of more than £3bn, has become a licence to spend money.

Let me put the BBC's budget into local perspective.

The Stormont Executive's annual spending for culture, arts and leisure is £111m - a tenth of what the BBC has just spent on a new London HQ or what BBC1 costs annually.

The total BBC budget of £3bn would go a long way to funding the entire health and social services operation for the whole of Northern Ireland.

At least plans for expanding the internet and more local services are now in reverse.

A year ago, the BBC wanted to spend £70m developing 65 local news services across the UK which would have been severely damaging to other media. Along with many other interested parties, I gave evidence to the House of Commons Select Committee last year, trying to explain how the BBC had an unfair advantage over local and regional newspapers.

The penny is now beginning to drop - and I hope the BBC's expansionist policy is now gone for ever.

No media organisation can compete against the millions ploughed into the BBC's websites, either nationally or regionally. The result is that local, regional and national newspapers are losing essential revenues.

If the BBC's empire-building is not thwarted, many will go out of business - as some have already done.

Does this really matter you may ask?

Well, I think the answer to that is a definite yes.

One of the great virtues of our democracy is the multiplicity of media, the fact that we have a daily choice of what we read, listen to or watch. That choice is threatened by an unrestrained BBC.

The playing field is not level and the BBC has the ball, the players and the millions to see off the other teams.

The BBC is a jewel which is being tarnished by a lack of transparency, excessive expenditure and unnecessary expansion.

It has channels like BBC 3 and BBC 4 which hardly anyone watches.

It has a multiplicity of radio stations and regional outlets and an internet site which no one else can possibly match because the costs are away beyond the realities of commercial life.

We, the public, pay the bills, but receive as little information as possible about how our money is spent.

Were it not for other media, we would probably never have known that Jonathan Ross was on £6m-a-year.

In all, it is said that more than 300 BBC executives earn six-figure salaries - 58 of them more than the Prime Minister's £194,000 annual income and certainly more than those who have the great responsibility of looking after the health, education and other public services of the country.

As with our MPs at Westminster, the BBC is only now revealing details of expenses. Grudgingly, the information has been extracted, rather than willingly revealed.

I understand legally why the salaries of broadcasters, including presenters such as Stephen Nolan, cannot be made public if they were negotiated in confidential agreements.

But who gave the BBC the authority in the first place to spend licence-fee money in this manner? By its lack of openness, it jeopardises the very editorial independence and objectivity for which the BBC has such a well-earned reputation.

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