Why the Tories have only themselves to blame for not reining in BBC excesses

Jeremy Hunt : Playing a blinder in making sure the public don't know too much. Pic Courtesy: The Guardian

Remember the great fuss from the Conservatives on how they were going to hold the BBC to account, expose those mega salaries paid to Graham Norton and Jeremy Paxman and make sure the taxpayer got the best value for their money from the BBC.

Well if you beleive  culture secretary Jeremy Hunt and Lib Dem culture spokesman Don Foster, it will be all happening from next year in the new cash frozen agreement to fund the BBC. He has spent the last year telling us about his success in allowing Parliament’s National Audit Office the right to launch any inquiry it likes into whether the BBC is value for money.

To quote him directly: “It is right that licence-fee payers have confidence that the BBC is spending money wisely, so I am pleased that the NAO now has the right to full access to BBC information. Its new power to decide which areas of activity to scrutinise will increase transparency while maintaining the BBC’s independence.”

In fact this statement is the worst kind of spin and churnalism. The hilarious fact is that the national papers that were critical of the BBC, the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph plus for that matter the Huffington Post website  ( see it here http://huff.to/vDq6y5 ) fell for the whole thing, hook line and sinker.

How do we know this to be true? Well reluctantly after both the NAO and culture ministry had refused to reveal it,  all the correspondence between the remarkably named Amyas Morse, head of the National Audit Office, Jeremy Hunt and the Chris Patten, chairman of the BBC Trust and his predecessor Sir  Michael Lyons, were released under a  Freedom of Information request to Exaro News, the new investigative website I work for. You can see  the two detailed factual articles at http://www.exaronews.com/ .

What they reveal is that Amyas – the nearest person we have in Britain to ” Mr Taxpayer” was engaged in a bloody war of attrition with the BBC and Mr Hunt on behalf of you, the licence fee payer, to get proper unfettered access to the BBC and that he lost.

At one stage he was extremely fed up.  In Whitehall language he wrote, ” “I am concerned that audit access that depends on continuing agreement between the government and the BBC rather than on statute leaves important matters unresolved and may mean that, in practice, the coalition’s proposals may not take things much further forward in terms of independent scrutiny of the BBC.”

In even more stark language he said:”“I am disappointed that it remains your view that my reports should reach Parliament via the BBC Trust and secretary of state.” “It raises the possibility that the BBC Trust or the secretary of state could redact material or, indeed, not publish the report.” You can  download all the letters at the Department of Culture, Media and Sport website See http://bit.ly/ujwp60 if you want to trawl through them.

The reason why this public official is so cross is plain to see. Why he might have the right to investigate what he likes, he is shackled by what he can find out. For a start all those BBC stars can protect their deals from public scrutiny because he has no statutory right of access and cannot override the Data Protection Act.  Even the Royal Household is not so well protected from this and the mega salaries, also paid by the taxpayer, and  the rest of Whitehall can be  scrutinised.

Also no other organisation  examined by the NAO can delay the publication of a critical report by running off to the secretary of state.

Hunt also rejected giving the right of the NAO to audit the BBC accounts – something I am told auditors find extremely useful because  throws up very quickly information when money is misspent.

  He told Morse: “I do not intend to give the NAO statutory access. “I am not persuaded that I should require the BBC to appoint the NAO as its external auditor. I do not consider this is a necessary step in ensuring that the government commitment on NAO access is achieved.”

 Finally he put a gun to his head: ” “If we do not reach agreement, the NAO will not have access to the BBC at least until there is another chance to review the agreement in 2016.”

Hunt has played a blinder over this. He convinced the media that he is Mr Good Guy when actually he is a baddie. The trouble is that  it is you, the licence payer, who have been conned. You could tell  him if you want to. His e-mail is jeremy.hunt@culture.gsi.gov.uk.