Commentary on the Trust's review of service licences by David Liddiment, Trustee

Date: 19.06.2012     Last updated: 22.09.2014 at 16.46

During the run up to the last charter renewal, as a regular columnist in MediaGuardian,  I argued that BBC governance was no longer fit for purpose. It was easy to see why. Whole genres like arts could seemingly disappear from BBC One without a whisper from the governing body. Panorama, for over 50 years the Corporation’s flagship current affairs programme, was shunted to late on Sunday night - the Outer Mongolia of the TV schedules - and the BBC's sovereign body seemed powerless to stop it.

Then, with the aftershock of Hutton, there was a growing consensus that the days of the BBC governors were numbered and the new Charter would have to come up with a better way. And so was born the BBC Trust, replete with Service Licences, Public Purposes and Public Value Tests. Eight years ago I welcomed this new approach with what has turned out to be something of a hostage to fortune "However robust the mechanics may look, they are only as effective as the people making the final judgements."

Well, as a Trustee I am now one of the people making the judgements and furthermore chairing the Trust committee responsible for overseeing the BBC’s performance. Back in 2004 I think I underestimated the strength of the mechanics of accountability that the new Charter laid down. Although it wasn’t easy to introduce the new systems to an organisation unused to formal public scrutiny, the Service Licence has proved an effective tool in keeping the BBC focused on its public purposes. Five years later, mid-way through the Charter, it’s a good point to reflect on where we have had some success and where there is more work to do.

The Trust has now completed a review of the performance of each of the BBC’s domestic services against its licence – which records the programme commitments and budget for each service - and today, we publish the first of a series of regular reports which will track the results of these reviews.

We have been struck again and again by the value placed on the BBC by audiences of all ages and backgrounds. From now-iconic 6Music to CBeebies and from Radio 4 to BBC Four, not forgetting the TV blockbusters Strictly and EastEnders, people are passionate about the BBC – something the outgoing Director-General is no doubt reflecting on as he meets with the CMS Select Committee later today.

The reviews have also allowed us to identify – objectively and on the basis of good evidence – where the BBC should aspire to do more. We were adamant that BBC children’s needed more funding. We were also clear that Radio 2, the nation’s favourite radio station, could do more in its daytime programmes to deliver the BBC’s public purposes and, most recently, with Chris Evans back at the Hay Festival (even if he couldn’t in the end broadcast his show from there), we can see regular evidence of this. We have seen a more ambitious BBC Two and will continue to press BBC One to “take creative risks and innovate” and to “regularly broadcast programmes of large scale and ambition” in line with its service licence commitments.

By any comparator the BBC is a formidable broadcaster, reaching 96% of the UK every week with quality measures across its services which are market leading and which have grown through this Charter. The BBC is at its best when it harnesses this considerable strength to create new ways of engaging with audiences: transforming ballroom dancing into a major Saturday night event; using the power of live television to engage millions of people with the wonders of the cosmos; and capitalising on the intimacy of radio by telling the history of the world through the examination of 100 objects.

But I still think there is more that can be done. As our Chairman has put it, the BBC should use the security of its licence fee funding to “live dangerously”. Embrace universality, sure, but don’t pursue populism for its own sake. All sections of the British public have the right to expect something that commercial broadcasters can’t or don’t offer. So while I’m pleased that the aspiration to be “distinctive” is gaining traction within the BBC, when the Trust looks again at each service over the next five years, greater distinctiveness will be our watchword. It is what the public expects, and it’s what the BBC must provide, if it is to continue to enjoy the appreciation of audiences.

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