Governance by petition won’t work – we need a real democratic voice at the BBC

What happened this week over BBC plans to remove recipes from its website is a salutary lesson in why the BBC needs governance reform, and why Government proposals announced last week will not do the trick. 

General Secretary


In last week’s White Paper, the Government rightly stepped back from many of the more outlandish proposals floated to reduce the remit of the BBC. But more widely, it sidestepped the real problems at the heart of the BBC’s governance. The BBC faces an ownership deficit and an accountability gap, and it is not clear how proposals for a unitary board made up of Government appointees and the great and good appointed by the BBC will solve either problem.

The BBC is a ‘public service’ – but not a state – broadcaster. It operates under a royal charter, agreed between it and Government. It is currently governed by a Trust of the great and good, who are appointed by Ministers, with the whole thing funded by us, the license fee payers.  But who owns it?  Confused?

And to whom is it accountable – not least when it comes to the expenditure of more than £3bn of our money?

The newly proposed BBC Board will need to be able to demonstrate independence from Government, but also be able to take licence fee payers along with them as they make sometimes controversial decisions about the allocation of scarce resources.

In the outcry this week what we saw was the mass mobilisation of the public – many of whom were making that point that the BBC’s recipe archive is ‘owned by us’. This was followed by climb-down of sorts, with the BBC agreeing to simply move the recipes to their commercial site.  There are similar petitions gathering steam around children’s services like CBeebies.

In the long term, decisions about cost cutting and the shape of future services can’t be made and then unmade on the basis of which issues gather most signatures on a Change.org petition. Deeper, ongoing engagement with licence fee payers is required.

It is for all of these reasons that Co-operative Party has argued that the Government and the BBC’s proposals must be far bolder. We believe that TV license holders should become members and owners of the BBC, solving the ownership deficit. These members would elect representatives (which, given the BBC’s reach, could become the biggest exercise of democracy outside of general elections) to hold the executive management to account, dealing with the accountability gap.

Importantly, elected Board members would walk into the Board room with a democratic mandate from thousands of ordinary licence fee members. As well as guaranteeing their independence from government, their mandate would make them well-placed to facilitate a dialogue with viewers, listeners and keen amateur cooks, and for them to be held accountable for decisions they take.

Experience in other sectors shows that member-owners are prepared to make tough decisions in the long term interests of their organisations because they are the ones with a real stake in future success.  For example, in recent years John Lewis employees have made tough decisions about the future of their own pension scheme.

What the public will always react badly to are decisions made behind closed doors, about the things they hold dear, in which they have had no say.  That is why it is time for BBC governance to come out into the open – with those making the decisions held directly accountable to licence fee payers. After all, we’re the ones who pay for it.