Thursday, July 1, 2010

Towards an open, transparent BBC - publishing in detail its mainstream expenditure #opendata

Today the BBC Trust announced that it wants the coporation to publish the pay of its top stars. This follows on from publication of the pay and expenses of senior executives. Publishing executive pay does not seem to have damaged the BBC's ability to function as a business. Publishing stars' pay is also unlikely to damage the BBC. I wonder if it is time to go further and make the BBC much more open - apply some of the open data work being done in central and local government to this £3billion per annum, tax payer funded organisation while protecting its journalistic independence.

The BBC is a fabulous national institution. It is funded by what is known as a regressive tax - a fixed charge on every person or business that owns a television set. For ante diluvian reasons the tax is a called a 'licence fee'. The poorer you are the greater the proportion of your income goes on the tax. To my mind, this places a strong moral obligation on the BBC to be prudent and transparent in expenditure, especially in such tough economic times.

Michael Lyons the Chair of the BBC Trust tackles this in his speech:

"there are distinct areas where further change – and acceleration of change - is needed. First: to demonstrate that every pound the BBC takes from licence fee payers is used well....To the public the BBC can appear spendthrift when it is unclear how the BBC is using the money the public gives it. This underlines the need for much greater financial control and transparency by the BBC.

...The answer lies in much more openness by the BBC. Openness about how it's spending the public's money

Due to the way it is funded the BBC has a direct responsibility to licence fee payers who are effectively its shareholders. This goes beyond the obligations that commercial companies have towards investors and is different from the relationship that other parts of the public sector have with tax payers.

The third area where we are asking the BBC to go the extra mile is in increased transparency over how the BBC spends the public's money."

Michael Lyons says that the BBC can appear spendthrift when it is unclear how it spends its money. The answer for Michael Lyons is to follow the open data movement that is starting to bring transparency to government. This would involve systematic publishing of detailed items of expenditure on the internet for others to analyse. We would then know precisely how our money is being spent. And it might even help the market for goods and services in TV to work better and drive out further value. It also gives a voice to the listener and viewer - if I want the BBC to spend more on local radio in my area it is very hard to campaign for that if i don't know what it actually spends.

Publishing data can be done safely and responsibly. As a member of the Local Public Data Panel I helped draft guidance for Local Government on how they could publish detailed expenditure on goods and services over £500. These offer a handy, adaptable framework. The BBC I suspect is not short of accountants, expenditure managment systems and technologists who can help prepare and publish the data.

To safeguard genuine journalistic independence, simple circles could be drawn around the new, current affairs etc, bring out into the open all expenditure on goods and services. There would be much wailing and gnashing of teeth about where the boundaries lie between news/current affairs and the rest. But that doesn't stop anyone publishing the budget and expenditure of Bargain Hunt, Dog Borstal or Doctor Who or the accounts department next week.

There will be confidentiality clauses in contracts - lawyers love those even when you are only contracting for a whelk stall. But, as the Chairman set out, there is a strong public interest case. Indeed elsewhere in the publicly funded sector, the Information Commissioner has been quite clear about the relative importance of the public interest viz a viz commerical confidentiality.

The new government has said that it would bring the National Audit Office in to audit the BBC and Michael Lyons tackles this in his speech. The NAO faces a huge task - publishing detailed expenditure data and bringing many eyes to bear on the problem might help that.

Declaration: I speak occasionally on media issues and was on the panel appointed by the last government to advise on the Independently Financed News Consortia. When in the civil service, in the diatant past I used to work on media regulation. I now run a company called talk about local that helps people in deprived communities find a voice online. This article is my own personal view and does not represent the views of employers or clients past or present.

1 comment:

  1. Not entirely sure why journalistic independence is inconsistent with the publication of financial data, any more than artistic independence is compromised by publishing details about drama production.


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