The British government is under new pressure to make the BBC subject to external regulation after it emerged that ministers made a secret deal with the publicly funded broadcaster allowing it to roll out as many joint venture channels as it wants.
The government’s official line has been that new BBC channels need the green light from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, partly to protect the commercial sector.
But under an agreement in November 2000 that was not made public, the official policy does not apply to channels launched as a joint venture – namely the channels in the UKTV stable owned by BBC Worldwide and Flextech, a unit of cable operator Telewest.
The pact came to light after the History Channel (owned by US firm Hearst) complained about BBC proposals for a ninth UKTV channel named UK History. These plans seemed to break a 1997 deal with the government whereby UKTV could create no more than eight channels.
Culture, media and sport secretary Tessa Jowell has written to the History Channel confirming that the secret deal in 2000 superseded the 1997 pact, allowing the launch of UK History.
Needless to say, the History Channel is none too happy. “I hope you will share my deep concern that the BBC once again seems to have been given highly preferential treatment by the DCMS, putting them at a significant commercial advantage over the private sector,” managing director Geoff Metzger wrote to Jowell.
“I am concerned that the department has denied the public sector vital information – information that might have changed important investment decisions which have already been made.”
Metzger is calling on Jowell to give communications regulator Ofcom authority over BBC Worldwide.
Data sourced from: MediaGuardian.co.uk; additional content by WARC staff