What could the draft BBC Charter mean for Northern Ireland?

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A draft BBC Charter and Framework Agreement has been published, but what’s in it for Northern Ireland and will proposed changes to governance arrangements be sufficient to address concerns expressed during the consultation process?

BBC Broadcasting House, Belfast – investment in a new production centre is something which the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure had called for (Image: Wikimedia Commons)
BBC Broadcasting House, Belfast – investment in a new production centre is something which the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure had called for (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport within the UK Government recently published the draft BBC Charter. The BBC Charter, alongside the Framework Agreement, is essentially the constitutional basis of the BBC. The new Charter will cover the period from 1 January 2017 to 31 December 2027.

How does the new Charter differ from the old one?

In broad terms, the new draft includes details of a proposed new BBC Board (to replace the BBC Trust). It also proposes a mid-term review, a new procedure for handling complaints, and assigns a number of new roles and functions to OFCOM. Among other measures which have received scrutiny since the publication of the draft is the requirement that the BBC will have to name all employees and presenters paid more than £150,000 a year.

What concerns have been expressed in Northern Ireland?

During the last Assembly mandate, the Culture, Arts and Leisure Committee discussed this issue and formed a response to the BBC Charter review which it sent to the Secretary of State. A summary of their response can be found in the Committee’s legacy report.

Issues the Committee had examined in particular included the structures through which the views of the Northern Ireland audience might be properly reflected in new governance and regulatory structures, and how the BBC could be better scrutinised and held to account by the Assembly and its committees. It expressed concern that Northern Ireland could be more fully represented in network-wide programming:

There are aspects of life in Northern Ireland that have resonance across the UK and the Committee would like to see the BBC make more of an effort to reflect these in network programming.

It also noted that the BBC had invested in new production centres in England, Glasgow and Cardiff, but that such a development had not taken place in Northern Ireland.

The Committee commented on the strong role which the BBC could play in enhancing local creative talent and supporting the creative industries. This was something which the Audience Council for Northern Ireland also commented on. And, like the Culture, Arts and Leisure Committee, the Audience Council expressed a need to see the BBC ‘enhance portrayal of, and cultural relevance to, Northern Ireland audiences on UK-wide services’.

The previous Minister for Culture, Arts and Leisure also composed a response to the BBC Charter review consultation. Some similar themes as expressed by the Committee and the Audience Council were included in the letter, with the issue of increased investment in local production capacity raised. The issue of accountability was also expressed, particularly in terms of the Assembly having a role in scrutinising the work of the BBC, and the Executive being able to make key funding decisions.

Within whatever governance and regulatory structures that emerge it is critical that there is specific representation for the north of Ireland.

Have the BBC and the UK Government addressed these concerns?

Last year, the UK Government sought to address some of the concerns previously expressed about a perceived lack of involvement by devolved institutions in the BBC Charter renewal process. This was carried out through the signing of Memoranda of Understanding (MoU) with the relevant administrations in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. In the Northern Ireland MoU, it is stated that:

The BBC will submit reports to, and appear before, committees of the Northern Ireland Assembly in relation to matters relating to Northern Ireland on the same basis as it does in the UK Parliament.

In addition, the draft Charter documentation contains an information sheet on implications for what the Government terms ‘nations and regions’. This sheet refers to commitments made in the draft Charter about quotas for the proportion of ‘out-of-London’ production. In addition, Ofcom will be able to place requirements on the BBC to provide a certain number of hours of programming ‘portraying and representing’ the nations and regions. The BBC has also committed to improving representation and portrayal of the nations and regions of the UK through its services. There is a commitment to ‘continued support for the minority languages of the UK’. In addition, for the first time Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales must agree to their representatives being appointed to the overseeing body of the BBC, the BBC Board.

The draft Charter and Framework Agreement state that the BBC must ‘reflect, represent and serve the diverse communities of all of the UK’s nations and regions and, in doing so, support the creative economy across the UK’. The BBC’s annual plan, report and accounts must include details of provision for the UK’s nations and regions.

Whether measures like these will be sufficient to satisfy concerns previously expressed by the devolved legislatures and administrations remains to be seen. Both the Scottish Parliament, through the European and External Relations Committee, and the National Assembly for Wales through the Culture, Welsh Language and Communications Committee[1], are currently taking evidence on the draft Charter.

[1] See also a blog post on this issue by the National Assembly for Wales Research Service.