Belfast Telegraph

Make Beeb more accountable, yes, but don't let it be neutered

By Paul Connolly

Things ain't half hotting up over the recent White Paper on the BBC. First we had the Beeb's well-timed "exclusive" on John Whittingdale's dominatrix lover (true), then the luvvies' panic over the impending evisceration of BBC drama (untrue) and the (entirely reasonable) contents of said paper.

Cue a week of BBC manoeuvring, culminating in the recipes controversy. Personally, I do buy into the interpretation that the recipe storm was contrived for the Beeb's own strategic purposes.

Whether this was to allow it to switch the recipes to the BBC Good Food website, where they, of course, earn advertising revenue, or to manufacture a backlash against the White Paper, or as a decoy to get other bits of reform through - none of this is clear yet.

But there certainly is an agenda; let's hope it leaks, or is prised out of the corporation.

Meanwhile, what about the impact in our own neck of the woods?

There are, for me, two key issues: the local Press settlement, and moves to make the BBC regions more locally accountable.

On the local Press, the Government has ordered the BBC to halt its expansion into all manner of things it shouldn't be involved in and concentrate fully on its public service responsibilities.

Specifically, it is to stay away from magazine-style features and hyper-local news, open up a videobank to local media partners, initiate a shared data journalism unit, and establish a public sector reporting service of 150 journalists in partnership with local newspaper groups.

I have heard nothing from Ormeau Avenue about when and how it intends to implement its obligations.

For example, if those 150 reporters are shared out proportionally across the UK, then at least four would be based here in our councils and courts.

Hopefully, the tired old BBC NI arguments about it being somehow "different" from the rest of the UK will be left where they should be - quietly buried in a metaphorical graveyard.

The other big issue is local accountability.

The BBC can be overly opaque about some decision-making and spending processes, hiding behind certain exemptions in Freedom of Information, for example, which would never be allowed to Government departments. It's taxpayers' money, after all (extracted under the threat of criminal prosecution).

The White Paper, in a section headed 'Increasing Accountability to the Nations', mandates the BBC to develop a "memoranda of understanding agreed with each of the devolved administrations".

I sense trouble ahead. It's perfectly reasonable that BBC NI director Peter Johnston and his execs are held to account by Stormont on strategy and spending.

But I know from conversations with some local politicians that many loathe the BBC and perceive it to be biased against them.

They would love to emasculate its probing, investigative journalism.

The Assembly and Executive are, in effect, controlled by the very two parties - DUP and Sinn Fein - that issue the majority of solicitor's letters to the local media. And Spotlight is the last big investigative force left locally.

So, by all means let Stormont hold the BBC to account over its financial and strategic decisions.

And we must make sure that BBC NI fulfils its White Paper obligations.

But, equally, we should stand guard against any attempts to neuter its editorial independence.

Belfast Telegraph


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