Speech draws mixed response at Edinburgh

EDINBURGH — They may not have appreciated his televangelist style, but there was no doubt that James Murdoch’s attack on the BBC’s “chilling” “land-grab” hit home as a somewhat subdued Edinburgh Television Festival ended Sunday.

Murdoch’s full-throttle assault on the power and scale of the BBC, delivered Friday, opening day of the fest, in the keynote MacTaggart Memorial Lecture, drew a lukewarm response from the crowd at the Scottish capital’s sedate McEwan Hall. There, for the first time in living memory, empty seats were visible as the recession reduced delegate numbers by around a quarter and Rupert Murdoch’s likely heir apparent warmed to his theme.

However, most attendees not employed by the BBC agreed with the News Corp. chairman-CEO, Europe and Asia, and former BSkyB boss’s view that the pubcaster has put on too much weight in recent years. There was a consensus that the Beeb needs to scale back its activities and so, in theory, provide a helping hand to a struggling private sector — struggling, that is, apart from the Murdoch-backed U.K. paybox BSkyB, which goes from strength to strength.

“The one thing James didn’t talk about was the dominance of Sky in the U.K. market,” said Channel Five chair- CEO Dawn Airey, herself a former Sky webhead. “The BBC is out of kilter with everyone else.” Murdoch, however, left no one in any doubt where he wants the ax to fall.

As News Corp. gears up to introduce pay walls for all its news-based websites, Murdoch made it clear that of the entities he’d like to see cut, the Beeb’s online news is at the top of the list.

“The news operation is creating enormous problems for the independent news business, and it has to be dealt with,” he snarled in an edgy Q&A session that kicked off the gabfest’s second day.

Murdoch said he wanted the BBC to become “much, much smaller,” claiming that the U.K. commercial broadcasting sector’s revenues at £3.3 billion ($5.3 billion) were dwarfed by the Beeb’s income of $7.4 billion.

Regardless of the fact that News Corp. factored in BBC Worldwide’s profits to boost the pubcaster’s $5.6 billion license fee income, even staunch supporters of the BBC’s role as a public service broadcaster think the org has gotten too large of late.

“It is one of the big issues of the day where I very much agree with James,” said Ed Richards, head of U.K. media regulator Ofcom. “When the BBC started, it could get on with it, such as launch BBC1 and BBC2, and there was no market impact. It would be completely different now. We have to accept that.”

But those working for the Beeb found holes in Murdoch’s argument. “BBC News is hugely trusted by the public,” said BBC Vision topper Jana Bennett. “James didn’t give the BBC any credit for that. Newspapers are in crisis in the U.S., and the BBC has nothing like the Web presence there that it does in the U.K.”

Another weakness in Murdoch’s argument, according to critics, was that he was calling for a U.S.-style free-market approach to U.K. media when a mixed economy has nurtured a thriving TV sector, much envied internationally.

“Like many Americans, James Murdoch regards the BBC, and the National Health Service, as something close to Soviet-style, state-run entities,” said British media commentator Steve Hewlett. “In that respect he is completely wrong, but he is not alone in thinking the BBC is too big and potentially a threat to paid-for journalism.”

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