Pressure builds on BBC spending

Gov't controls may affect editorial freedom

LONDON — The BBC’s finances are to come under the full scrutiny of the U.K.’s public spending watchdog, the National Audit Office, for the first time.

The move is another signal that the corp. is coming under increasing pressure from Blighty’s new Conservative-led coalition government.

Critics claim that the pubcaster’s finances are notoriously opaque, but BBC toppers maintain the org has of late introduced reforms to make them more transparent.

In recent months details of BBC executives’ expenses claims have been published.

However, so far the pubcaster has resisted attempts to force it to disclose the fees it pays to stars and other talent. It argues such information is commercially sensitive.

In a statement, the BBC Trust, which represents license fee payers, said: “We support a move to allow the NAO to choose which areas of BBC operations it will review on an annual basis.

“In our view, this does not threaten the BBC’s independence from government or Parliament, provided that the NAO continues to report to the Trust and does not question editorial decision-making.”

Media commentator Steve Hewlett said: “BBC finances are already examined by the National Audit Office, but only on the BBC’s terms.

“Now the watchdog, rather than the BBC, will be able to decide, within certain caveats, which parts of the BBC’s finances can be examined.

“This is unlikely to provide the audit office with unfettered access but it could, in theory, lead to the BBC having to explain why it spends so much, say, on rehearsal time for ‘EastEnders’ and could therefore impact on independent editorial decisions.” Last week, the U.K. government left the way open to cut the BBC’s license fee from 2012 and accepted a proposal by the Trust to freeze the fee from next year.

Twenty-four hours earlier Trust chairman Michael Lyons, appointed by the old Labour government, said he would not seek to renew his contract when it expires in May.