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25/11/2010

'Groundhog Day' For BBC Impartiality

A deal on the BBC licence fee - described by commentators as agreed too hastily - has forced the corporation back onto the defensive.
Just a few months after the BBC was on the rack over its editorial impartiality - when an internal memo carried by the BBC's Director General Mark Thompson was pictured by alert snappers as he was on route to a Downing Street meeting over cuts - the issue has again been in focus.
Mr Thompson used a speech at the end of November to defend the BBC's licence fee deal, despite admitting that service and job cuts are inevitable.
At the Voice of the Listener and Viewer conference, Mr Thompson said that there was sure to be "a significant reduction in services as well as job losses" at the BBC World Service division.
He explained that the global broadcasting unit is currently funded by the Foreign Office, but the BBC will take over financial responsibility from 2015 under its new licence fee settlement.
The TV licence fee will be frozen at the current level of £145.50 for six years to 2017 and the BBC will also take on funding for Welsh-language channel S4C and BBC Monitoring.
The corporation will therefore have to make savings of more than £500m to meet the new commitments, representing a 16% reduction in its income.
In his first speech since the settlement was agreed, Thompson defended the decision to reach a quick deal rather than "walk away from the table".
He expressed his belief that the BBC would have been stuck with a much worse arrangement if it had tried to negotiate the settlement next year as initially planned.
However, Thompson also warned that there was a real danger that the BBC's independence could be "under-played or even forgotten" by the Government.
Mr Thompson also said that he is confident it will not place any further financial commitments on the £3.6bn licence fee in the near future.
The whole controversy recalled how Mark Thompson was photographed with the memo revealing 'concern' that the BBC gives 'context to cuts coverage'.
The BBC's impartiality was on the line in September after the Director General was snapped going into a meeting in Downing Street to discuss a season of TV and radio programmes about the Government's then imminent Spending Review cuts.
Mr Thompson was photographed carrying an internal email from Helen Boaden, the BBC News Director, saying that she had had lunch with Andy Coulson, the coalition Government's Director of Communications, at which he had expressed concern "that we give context to our Spending Review Season".
She said in the note that she had responded to Coulson's concerns about context by saying "that's what we always try to do ... inform the public about the whys and wherefores".
However, a BBC statement at the time said: "The Director General has made it repeatedly clear that the impartiality of the BBC is paramount.
"In his role as editor-in-chief (he) discussed the possible participation of a number of members of the Government in the BBC's coverage of the spending review," said the statement.
That prompted unease within BBC News, where correspondents and programme editors are said to face regular pressure from all the main parties over their political coverage.
(BMcC/GK)
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