The BBC’s director-general Mark Thompson says there is “no evidence” the corporation is stifling commercial publishers’ efforts to monetise their online products and that the BBC’s huge online presence can help the online economy by spreading awareness. In an interview with BBC Radio 4’s The Media Show on Wednesday, interviewer and media pundit Steve Hewlett asked: “How is someone supposed to launch and finance a financially funded commercial web operation when you’re there with 143 million quid, which is a third more than the entire national press?”
That’s the very question Carolyn McCall, Sly Bailey and all manner of media CEOs have been asking recently, but Thompson has no time at all for their argument: “That’s based on the assumption that the way people use the web is substitutional; so if I use the BBC website, I’m not going to use the Guardian website. The actual evidence on the ground that the BBC’s presence on the web is making it harder for commercial players to make money is simply not there.” He added that “it may be that by getting people interested in the web, the BBC may be stimulating rather than foreclosing the web. (Disclosure: paidContent:UK’s parent company, ContentNext Media, is a wholly owned subsidiary of Guardian News & Media.)
Thompson used the half-hour slot to state his strong opposition to any “top-slicing” of the TV licence fee, echoing BBC Trust chairman Michael Lyons. Lord Carter’s Digital Britain report recommended that the £130 million-a-year surplus from the digital switchover fund should become available for any broadcaster or media company willing to provide public-service broadcasting after 2012 — and that proposal is expected to make its way into legislation via the Queen’s speech this Autumn.
Thompson: “I believe that the risk in the end to the independence and the ability of the BBC to deliver its services to the public is so great that in my view there are no circumstances in which I think top-slicing would be a good idea.” He’s convinced there is a group of “ideologically focused” people who want to “prove a point about the principle of top-slicing, rather than having a particular urgent need,” possibly referring to those same newspaper groups and rival broadcasters that have long questioned why the Beeb should receive such a large proportion of the fee. He also pleads that are “other alternatives” to funding regional news.
The Department of Culture, Media and Sport wasted no time issuing a counter-punch, with a spokeswoman telling Guardian.co.uk it is “disappointed” with Thompson’s stance. She says: “The public greatly value local and regional news. We have invited the BBC and others to suggest how it can be secured for the long term. Using a small fraction of the licence fee to do so is the best and fairest idea so far, but, as we have said, we will happily consider others.”