Government and BBC Take Their Battle to Conference Platform

22 September 2003

The simmering ill will between the Blair administration and the BBC spilled over on the final day of the weekend's Royal Television Society conference in Cambridge.

The conference, an annual talkfest at which politicos rub shoulders with industry tycoons from both side of the Atlantic, is a favoured venue for high profile posturing and the firing of warning shots. This weekend’s shindig was no exception.

Government culture, media and sport secretary Tessa Jowell lost no opportunity to take potshots at the BBC – the state controlled broadcaster with which the administration has been at loggerheads since the BBC cast doubt on the veracity of its claims over Iraq’s alleged “weapons of mass destruction”.

The BBC’s charter, due for renewal in 2006, is now poised over the corporation’s head like a political sword of Damocles. Jowell warned the BBC that its charter will be subject to a wide-ranging review, the outcome of which will be “seriously” influenced by the result of the Hutton inquiry.

Said Jowell: “I want this Charter review to be characterised by vigorous and open debate about the kind of BBC we want for the future. The BBC is paid for by the British people and it belongs to them.

“We need to ask ourselves what we want and expect the BBC to deliver; what range and scale of services it should provide; how it should be positioned in relation to the market; how it should be funded and regulated; and whether it delivers good value for money.”

A counter-volley was discharged by BBC director general Greg Dyke, who attacked the controversial clause in the government’s recently enacted Communications Bill that allows non-EU companies to bid for UK television franchises.

“I was passionately opposed to the change in the law that allows American media companies to buy ITV and Channel 5,” said Dyke. “I thought it was nonsense to have done it … I don't think it came from anybody or anywhere other than a small coterie in Downing Street.”

Dyke's remarks were triggered by conference revelations on Saturday by US media tycoons Mel Karmazin (Viacom) and Haim Saban (Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers – and now owner of Germany’s ProsiebenSat.1) that they could be interested in bidding for ITV. Dyke feared this could lead to excessive US influence on British culture.

“Everything I saw yesterday convinced me that I had been right to oppose it, that actually you saw the cultural difference,” he said, adding that it was wrong to think such a takeover would bring new investment into British television.

Data sourced from: (UK) and BBC Online Business News (UK); additional content by WARC staff