Belfast Telegraph

Friday 25 July 2014

High flyers at BBC come down to earth

A Belfast Telegraph report on the cost of BBC flights has raised another question mark over BBC accountablity. Chief Reporter Chris Thornton looks at the issues.

The million quid or so that the BBC spent on flying back and forth to Belfast last year is really a drop in the ocean of the £3bn that licence fee payers cough up annually for the privilege of turning on their television sets.

Every one of those 16 flights a day - for journalists, programme guests, BBC executives - may have been justified. Some may not. The point, say some of the Beeb's critics, is that licence fee payers won't know one way or the other, even though they're each expected to pay £135.50 towards the cost.

If you regard the licence fee as a tax - and it is essentially a tax on owning a television - then the situation with the BBC is akin to one of the slogans that sparked the American Revolution: this is taxation without representation.

Public money is being spent without the public having much of a say in how it's spent, which is why MPs on Westminster's Public Accounts Committee have lobbied some time for powers of greater scrutiny over the BBC.

Take the million pounds on Belfast flights as an example. The Government spent a lot more ferrying civil servants to London and back again. They spent £2m on business class alone in one year, although it should be noted that they have a larger employee base than the BBC in Northern Ireland.

It should also be noted that the civil servants seemed to get a better rate for business class - £168.72 on average - than the BBC got for mainly economy flights (over £180, which is greater than one family's licence fee).

The point here is the civil servants who approve the spending have to look over their shoulders to the Public Accounts Committee. BBC managers eventually have to look to the BBC Trust - the new version of the Governors - but criticism there doesn't seem to involve the public and often detailed flogging of a PAC report.

To be fair to the BBC, accountability is a situation that they seem to trying to address. The establishment of the BBC Trust and new audience councils is supposed to be step towards greater openness. In the past two months the Trust has received two reports they commissioned from the National Audit Office, scrutinising the digital switchover and BBC procurement.

The PAC, however, thinks those kind of reports shouldn't be invited by the Trust, that the Audit Office should be free to look wherever it wants in the BBC.

A lot of people in Northern Ireland might not actually welcome greater scrutiny of the Beeb's finances. Despite official reluctance - both from Government and the BBC - to break down the regional takeup of the licence fee, it's pretty clear that Northern Ireland has long been a haven for defaulters.

We have less than 3% of the UK's total population, but more than 5% of the prosecutions for licence fee evasion. A 2001 report estimated that 17.6% of households here - about 120,000 homes - didn't pay the licence fee.

That means the households that do pay contribute about £80m annually to the BBC. With £70m spent on BBC NI, we get the national output for £10m. Some might consider that a bargain.

But as the licence fee goes up - £151.50 by 2012, an increase that "disappointed" the BBC - there will continue to questions about how well the Corporation delivers value for money

2007 wasn't a great year for the BBC. It was embroiled in phone-in scandals and found guilty of group-think and political correctness. The management now seems to be aware that there has been a distancing between the Corporation and its audience.

Which is why Director General Mark Thompson has ordered 16,500 staff to attend "a new mandatory training programme, Safeguarding Trust". No doubt that's good news for the airlines.

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