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BBC oversight gets extreme makeover

Blighty pubcaster hangs on to license fee

LONDON — The U.K. intends to abolish the BBC’s Michael Grade-topped board of governors and has warned the pubcaster to stop chasing ratings.

The accountability board, set up 80 years ago, will be replaced in two years by the BBC Trust, to be headed by Grade.

But there was a silver lining in the proposals released Wednesday. The BBC’s controversial funding, a £126 ($241) license fee levied on all British homes with a TV, is guaranteed until at least 2016. That is four years after the planned date of digital switchover in the U.K.

Critics have argued that with up to 400 channels to choose from, and much of the country wired to pay TV services, the case for keeping the license fee could no longer be justified.

But Prime Minister Tony Blair’s administration disagreed and media minister Tessa Jowell said there was considerable public support for the levy.

She announced the proposals as the government published a pre-legislative review of the broadcaster titled “A Strong BBC, Independent of Government.”

Document was called “disappointing” by Channel 4 chair Luke Johnson and “a fudge” by economist Howard Davies, who chaired a government-appointed committee examining the pubcaster’s future.

“This is a strong endorsement of the BBC as the cornerstone of public service broadcasting in the U.K. now and through digital switchover,” Grade said in a statement.

Members of the BBC Trust will be government-appointed and will set performance targets for all BBC services. They will be charged with ensuring that the pubcaster sticks to its public service brief and doesn’t merely chase ratings and compete head-on with private webs.

Grade expressed regret that his reforms to modernize the BBC had not had time to prove themselves, but added the new way of running the BBC was an improvement.

He said: “I have to admit that my reforms were not future-proof. I can understand the government wanting a much more secure and long-lasting solution” to the problem of BBC governance.

Grade denied that the abolition of the board was a direct result of the clash with the government over the BBC’s reporting of an allegedly “sexed-up” Iraqi intelligence dossier last year. That led to the resignation of his predecessor, Gavyn Davies, and director-general Greg Dyke. During the spat, the governors initially backed the story and Dyke’s defense of it without probing further.

“The problem of governance was evident well before then,” Grade said.

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