The BBC could be dismantled and its editorial independence curbed in the wake of the row over Iraq, according to leaked government papers.
The Whitehall documents, drawn up by senior civil servants, suggest that the BBC could be split into “separate entities for England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland”. The papers signal a policy which corporation executives fear would end its 80-year existence as a national institution.
The break-up plans form part of a wider review of the BBC’s future and come at one of the most vulnerable moments in its history after the resignations last month of its chairman and director-general.
The internal documents also reveal that the government is considering a wider role for Ofcom, its new media watchdog, with greater controls over BBC services and output. The governors could be stripped of their job of overseeing the BBC’s “impartiality and accuracy” with the task handed to the quango.
Other ideas, which are likely to form the basis for a green paper on the BBC’s new charter, include: o Taking the governors “outside the BBC” to make them more independent. o Increasing parliamentary scrutiny with an annual review of the BBC’s performance. o Sharing a portion of its £2.6 billion a year licence fee revenue among other broadcasters. o Closing new services that fail to fulfil the corporation’s role as a public service broadcaster.
Although the 30 pages of drafts, headed BBC Charter Review, appear to be at an early stage, the disclosure of the documents will be embarrassing.
Critics will claim that the government is gearing up to exploit the fall-out from the Hutton inquiry in which the BBC was savaged for the quality of its journalism and management.
In the most contentious section — entitled The BBC’s Constitution — the papers say there could be more scope for national and regional autonomy “to reduce perceived metropolitan bias”. But then officials ask: “How far is it essential for the BBC to be organised on a UK-wide basis?
Is there a case for separate entities for England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, or at least a more federated approach than now?” The disclosure will alarm Lord Birt, former director-general of the BBC and one of Tony Blair’s closest advisers. He described any such move as one which would eventually turn the BBC into “a weak, federal institution”.
In his autobiography he said this would mean the BBC being “broken up with an English Broadcasting Corporation . . . and its status as the world’s most successful cultural institution much diminished”.