The BBC will be truly independent of Downing Street only when it generates its own funding
The BBC is a strange old thing. But then, so is the British government. And when the two get gladiatorial, it is usually good entertainment. The latest phase of the “Truth or Blair'” game being played between the corporation and the government has been called a farce by the former. The BBC has alleged that Downing Street had “sexed up” last September’s intelligence dossier on Iraq, in order to bolster Mr Tony Blair’s case for going to war. The BBC had claimed senior intelligence sources for the tip-off, and one of its correspondents had later named the prime minister’s director of communications as meddling with the contents of the dossier. A select parliamentary committee has now cleared this gentleman (although the vote was deeply divided), but the “jury is still out on the accuracy of the September dossier”. This is, of course, neither here nor there, with both the government and the corporation claiming victory. Moreover, the BBC refuses to either apologize for the story or reveal its source. The defence secretary is now pulling out of his hat one dodgy intelligence man after another as probable source of the leak, with the BBC thinking up newer ways of refusing to identify the mole. This, in essence, is the farce as it stands now.
For the BBC, what is at stake is the trust it has built up over the years in the independence, impartiality and credibility of its reporting. Most viewers would believe the BBC, rather than CNN, on Iraq, although strictly speaking, CNN is more “independent” than the BBC in how it is funded. In fact, the present stand-off between Downing Street and the corporation, and the latter’s bullish refusal to apologize, bring out the peculiar ambivalence of the BBC’s legendary independence. Its freedom is granted by royal charter, and its excellence as a “public service broadcaster” is maintained by this chartered monopoly over licence fee. It is a peculiar and increasingly anachronistic situation, where the BBC’s cherished independence is not founded on actual autonomy with respect to its funding. Its board of governors is appointed by the government, and the director-general and management are answerable to this board. But although the BBC is principally funded by what the British taxpayer pays as licence fee, it does not have to open its books up to public audit, as do other government and tax-funded institutions. As a result, it has grown into that extraordinary thing, a genuinely independent public institution.
But this is all very well, until the BBC comes into direct conflict with the government. And that is when the terms of the charter could compromise the BBC’s autonomy, and hence its independence. As long as it accepts a huge subvention from the government, its right to ask the government not to meddle with truth-telling remains vulnerable and far from absolute. The charter is coming up for renewal in 2006, when the BBC’s scale, scope and purpose would be subjected to both governmental and independent scrutiny. It has also been hinted that perhaps not all of the licence fee would go automatically to the BBC, and may be skimmed off for other broadcasters. Perhaps the BBC, with all it has to offer Britain and the world, is living on borrowed time.