Page last updated at 16:01 GMT, Friday, 30 May 2008 17:01 UK

BBC Trust review: Your questions

Dame Patricia Hodge
The trust is an independent body acting on behalf of licence fee-payers
The BBC Trust has called for tighter management of the corporation's websites, and criticised management for a 3.5 million overspend in 2007/2008.

Dame Patricia Hodgson, who led the review of bbc.co.uk, also outlined new safeguards to protect the BBC's competitors on the internet.

She said online services such as sport and news would have to prove they were distinctive, or face greater scrutiny.

Following the publication of the review, Dame Patricia invited you to ask her questions about the findings.


Q: If Wikipedia can stay free of advertising why can't the BBC? The worst decision the Trust has made, in my view.
Mrs Procter, Brighton

You raise an important issue which was not covered in this particular review - which looked at the BBC's UK website, which is funded by the licence fee and doesn't carry any advertising.

However, last October the Trust did give permission for the BBC to establish bbc.com - a commercial venture for users outside the UK, which does carry advertisements. The aim is make the BBC's excellent content available around the world and, in so doing, make profits that can be returned to the UK.

Before approval, the Trust considered whether this site fitted with the BBC's public purposes, demonstrated commercial efficiency, didn't damage the BBC's reputation and brand, and complied with fair trading and market considerations.

The BBC remains a small player in the international online market but we feel that the BBC should do its best to maximise return for UK licence fee payers.

Do you feel that the Have Your Say part of the website is truly contributing? Like all other political boards, it simply becomes a home for the politically vulgar and little represents the public who generally don't post.
Joss Sanglier, Stony Stratford

I'm sorry you don't enjoy the views that some other users post on the Have Your Say pages. This can also be the case with phone-in programmes. But it is undoubtedly true that a lot of people appreciate them.

It became clear during the review that the public have a growing expectation of open dialogue with the BBC and the Have Your Say board is one of the ways in which audiences can express their views to the BBC and a wider audience.

BBC management have been exploring increased opportunities for interaction through the message boards, blogs, and conversations like this one. The Trust will continue to monitor management's progress in this area, because we believe it will become increasingly important.

From your point of view, at least it doesn't get in the way of the rest of the site.

Please can you reassure us that the BBC website will in no way be stifled, and that it will be allowed to continue to grow? It is such a wonderful service and its many users feel very protective towards it. It's the best in the world.
Mr S Bentley, Nuneaton, UK

We have been very clear in our review that the website is delivering an excellent service and huge numbers of people who use it and love it. We wouldn't want to do anything to damage that relationship with its users. However, it should remain distinctive and continue to carry out rigorous assessments for public value and market impact.

Can Dame Patricia explain exactly what "public value test" means and who's going to judge it? Why should the BBC have to be different from commercial websites and again what does different mean?
Paul Anderson, Sheffield

The BBC uses licence fee-payers' money - public money - to fund its services, and so has a special responsibility to deliver real value to the public. Its services, therefore, need to be distinctive and special. The idea of a Public Value Test is to make a judgment about the value of the service, balanced against the rest of the market and any potential harm to competitors.

Whenever the BBC management proposes to launch a new service or make significant changes to an existing service the BBC Trust will consider the proposal and decide whether to launch a Public Value Test (PVT).

The PVT has two parts - an assessment of public value, carried out by the BBC Trust, and a "market impact assessment" carried out by media regulator Ofcom. Once these have been concluded the Trust will publish its provisional conclusions and consult the public.

Recent examples of new services that have gone through a PVT include the iPlayer and the BBC's HD TV service. (You can find out more on: the BBC Trust website)

Distinctiveness became part of the remit for bbc.co.uk following the Graf review of the BBC's online services in 2004. We have proposed that every part of bbc.co.uk should meet most or all of the following criteria:

  • Demonstrate BBC editorial values
  • Be non-commercial
  • Be made in and for the UK
  • Have a clear link to TV and Radio brands
  • Show creative and editorial ambition
  • Be fresh and original in approach
  • Be unique
  • Why should the BBC have to artificially limit its website in order to protect the profits of commercial news sites? Surely the BBC should try to produce the best possible service from licence fee-payers' compulsory tax?
    David Russell, Newton Mearns

    Public feedback and other research tells the Trust that bbc.co.uk is of great value to licence fee-payers. But they also benefit from and enjoy other online services within a thriving UK online market. The BBC should do its best to offer the best value it can to licence payers whilst not stifling competition.

    The BBC Trust was created to ensure clarity of the remit and scope of all BBC's activities and it requires the BBC to take account of the market impact and consequently competitors' views and impressions.

    Far from hurting the excellence of the service we believe that the actions we have suggested will strengthen it and safeguard its future.

    So each part of the website to have its own aims and budget. Is this wise? Surely this will create an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy, increasing costs, and making it harder to achieve a cohesive and unified website?
    Martin Miller, Glasgow

    In considering changes to the service licence we had to balance carefully the need for greater transparency with ensuring the service can be run effectively. The changes we've suggested are designed to protect the service and to build on its quality.

    Detailed budgets for all areas of the service are already held internally so we do not foresee additional costs arising from our recommendations. At the same time we require the management to improve navigation across the site and insist on more editorial cohesion across different areas.

    A great many TV license fee payers will be shocked to learn that there was a "misallocation" of their money. What reassurance can you give them that sloppy accountancy practices do not exist elsewhere in the Corporation?
    Des, Highlands, Scotland

    We are disappointed to find insufficient financial accountability at bbc.co.uk. The misallocation was caused by the reorganisation that saw different components of the bbc.co.uk service overseen by four different areas of the BBC. This structure gave greater autonomy to the output divisions but led to ineffective central control of the service.

    We are demanding changes to the way the service is run to make sure that it is properly accountable in future and we have made it clear that we will not approve any new investment in the service until we are satisfied by management's proposals for improved control.

    No other service BBC had its activities spread across so many divisions and independent auditors did not discover any problems in other services.

    I own and run a GSCE revision website. Our free-to-access site cannot compete against Bitesize at key times of year when the BBC provide excessive advertising for Bitesize all over its networks - radio, TV, web, etc. How can an independent website like my own have a chance of success?
    Andrew Harmsworth, Cambridge

    I sympathise with your question. The BBC, and specifically bbc.co.uk, has a duty under the Charter and Agreement to provide formal learning content aimed at children. We found that BBC schools - and Bitesize in particular - is enormously valued by its users, their teachers and parents.

    However, we strongly believe that all BBC content must be distinctive and we will require BBC management to adopt a consistent and rigorous approach to assessing this. Where sites are found not to be distinctive they will have to close.

    The Trust's commitment to distinctiveness and mindfulness of market impact is demonstrated by our decision to subject BBC management's plans for a new formal learning proposition to a Public Value Test later this year.

    Will there also be a monitoring body which will continually check the various sections of the BBC website to ensure that it is reporting correctly and impartially?
    Jamie Dowling, Birmingham

    All parts of bbc.co.uk already have to comply with BBC editorial guidelines which cover accuracy and impartiality. BBC management are required to report regularly to the trust on these issues, and the trust is rigorous in its oversight.

    We do not envisage a separate body that would monitor compliance but as part of tighter management controls we will expect to see better editorial oversight of the service as a whole.

    Don't you think testing each part of the website against seven criteria is going to be a complete waste of time and money?
    Clare Templeman, Woking

    People pay the licence fee in order to receive services of a range and type that are not necessarily available elsewhere in the market. In other words, they should be distinctive. That is a vital characteristic of public service content and there should be a consistent approach to it.

    Consequently, we developed the seven criteria in discussion with BBC management which will allow for a consistent and robust approach to assessing distinctiveness. I hope you would agree that the criteria (listed above) are of benefit to licence fee-payers. The requirement need not be bureaucratic. It should be a normal part of decision making for the BBC.


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