Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Can the BBC Trust be trusted?

The BBC appeared to come clean on 9 May when they reported that £106,031 had mistakenly been withheld from charities. The BBC's press release pointed journalists to the positive aspects of reports by PricewaterhouseCoopers and Ronald Neil (see blog 10 May 2008). But there are now questions about the reasons for money not being paid to the charities. These doubts arise because of the relatively small turnover of Audiocall, which is a commercial subsidiary company owned by the BBC.

It seems that the BBC Trust, whose chairman has a background in accountancy, and BBC management went so far as to remove pertinent details from PricewaterhouseCoopers' report (pdf), which those clued up could use to put two and two together and suss out a possible motive for the telephone money being withheld. The proportion of Audiocall's profit represented by the £106,031 was redacted, as was the company's turnover. Furthermore a report from the law firm Baker & McKenzie wasn't made public, ostensibly because of the possibility of disciplinary proceedings at BBC Worldwide.

The relevant telephone calls were made "outside of the window in which votes were counted in a number of shows over a two year period, ending in August 2007" (BBC press release 9 May 2008) As the Trust puts it: It was the practice of Audiocall to retain revenue that could have been due to charity from calls received outside the voting window. PwC advised that this could be perceived as improper conduct. In PricewaterhouseCoopers' findings, as released by the Trust, the BBC's redactions are marked with scissors; there are 230 lines with cuts in the redacted findings, including in the Key Findings section.

The BBC Trust published Editorial Controls & Compliance (pdf) on the same day, which has barely a harsh word to say against BBC management. Despite early signs of independence, it increasingly looks like the BBC Trust is prepared to side with management in order to minimise the fallout from cheating and deception. There is now reason to doubt the Trust's independence and impartiality.

A year ago when Sir Michael Lyons started his work as head of the Trust he said that its foremost responsibility is to speak for the public, for those people who pay their licence fee, and not to immediately defend actions taken by the BBC staff. But the Trust is now being tested on these issues, and how well it copes and achieves the right balance will be the measure of its worth. The question now is whether the Trust can be trusted.

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