BBC bid reaction puts pressure on ministers

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That poll suggests a good measure of support among licence payers. But it is not shared by several UK newspapers, whose views could sway public opinion—and put pressure on ministers as they start to consider the BBC's detailed funding proposals.

Yesterday's Evening Standard said the BBC's claims "about shouldering the costs of switching elderly and poor viewers from analogue to digital are a diversion" and called on culture secretary Tessa Jowell to say how much the BBC really needed "to do its job properly".

An editorial in today's Times, titled Greedy Auntie, accused Grade and Thompson of pushing their luck with an "extortionate" licence fee bid which was "impossible to justify". "The much-heralded process of 'going digital' is the perfect cover for a blank cheque from the public" said The Times, which called on Jowell to look at the plans with "extreme suspicion".

The Daily Telegraph's editorial said by being drawn into the digital switchover process "the BBC is unhealthily co-opted into the Government's plans". Viewers wanted the corporation to spend public money making better programmes and not "covertly subsidising the Government's analogue switch-off or developing obscure new digital channels".

The Telegraph continued: "Digital television may prove fatal for publicly funded television. The BBC should be setting targets to reduce the licence fee by a set amount each year, while throwing all its efforts into programme-making, not platform-building. When the cost of the licence approaches the price of satellite subscription, the case for publicly funded television disintegrates."

The Financial Times' editorial, headlined Auntie's Got A Nerve, said Grade and Thompson had made a "staggering proposal". It called on the Government to ensure that 2007 "is the beginning of the end of the licence fee, which is simply untenable in a multichannel world. Once the switchover is complete, the BBC could introduce pay-per-view and tender—along with other broadcasters—for a share of any finance for public service programmes."

The FT continued: "[The] Government must reconcile itself to funding Digital UK, the company handling the digital switchover. It is the Government that stands to benefit from auctioning the released spectrum: it should pay the bill, rather than dumping it on all licence payers."

It continued: "The bottom line is that the BBC needs and deserves to go fully digital as soon as possible. Britain leads the world in this technology. If the lead is maintained there will be spin-offs elsewhere."

Paul Brown, chief executive of the Commercial Radio Companies Association, told the FT his organisation did not think the licence fee should be used to pursue the Government's digital policies, a view echoed by Jocelyn Hay, chairman of the Voice of the Listener & Viewer.

She told The Times: "It is totally wrong that [the] Government should now expect licence payers to meet the additional cost of bringing a highly desirable social benefit of a kind which has traditionally been paid for out of general taxation."

Lovelace Consulting  |  12.10.2005

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