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BBC Trust hits out over licence fee deal

The head of the BBC Trust has hit out over the way the recent licence fee deal was hammered out between the UK government and BBC management, and called for safeguards to ensure the public has a voice in such fundamental decisions.

The BBC Trust that was established to oversee the activities of the UK public broadcaster but was widely seen to have been sidelined in the recent licence fee agreement, under the terms of which the BBC will foot the bill for free licences for over 75s and, in return, will have a the fee linked to inflation and have the ability to charge iPlayer users.

Trust chairman Rona Fairhead said: “The Trust has been clear that, although we were involved throughout the process, the process itself fell well short of what the public had a right to expect. It is the people’s BBC, not the politicians’ BBC and the public should have a vital say in decisions that fundamentally affect the services that they receive for their money.”

She added that a pattern has emerged in which BBC funding has become inextricably linked to government budgets and spending reviews and called for greater public involvement.

“We believe the public need a guarantee from the government that measures will be put in place to protect licence fee funding from being changed without due process,” Fairhead said.

“These measures could include a requirement for more formal public and Parliamentary scrutiny of government decisions about the BBC’s funding. Secondly, that the public voice must be absolutely pivotal in charter discussions.”

BBC director general Tony Hall has defended the licence fee deal, though admitted there are issues of independence the negotiations have raised.

The UK government is expected to release a paper this week outlining possible options for the BBC. Ahead of publication, it has been suggested one option outlined will be scrapping the BBC Trust and empowering communications regulator Ofcom to regulate the pubcaster. It has also been reported that the paper will suggest the BBC move away from providing as much entertainment content.

Fairhead said: “Newspaper headlines in the last few days have suggested that in its Green Paper the Government will say the BBC should do less of the ‘entertain’ when it comes to the mission to ‘inform, educate and entertain’.

“Our audience research published earlier this year showed that not only do the public back that current mission, but when asked to choose from some words describing what the BBC’s mission should be, over six in ten people chose ‘entertain’, more than any other.”

The BBC Trust boss concluded: “For the BBC to serve the nation, serve the public and support the creative industries it needs to be a confident and strong BBC. Any challenge to that confidence, and in particular to the BBC’s independence, risks having chilling effect on the organisation.”