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Beeb bites back at Blair

Davies escalates battle between gov't and b'caster

LONDON — Gavyn Davies, chairman of the BBC’s board of governors, mounted a savage attack on the U.K. government Sunday by accusing them of trying to undermine the pubcaster by threatening to cut the broadcaster’s £2.6 billion ($4.2 billion) funding.

Davies said that “threats, veiled and not so veiled, from ‘government sources’ to take revenge on the BBC by reducing its funding, removing its director general (Greg Dyke), and changing its charter have been reported frequently in the media” in an article in the Sunday Telegraph newspaper.

The pubcaster is preparing to defend its current funding in the fall when it starts to renegotiate its royal charter, which expires in 2006. The government review is not expected to scrap the license fee, the tax on households possessing a television, but it may propose the BBC hand over the board of governors regulatory responsibilities to Ofcom, the new super regulator.

The Beeb has resisted attempts to make Ofcom responsible for policing its impartiality and accuracy — a function still performed by the governors.

The chairman also laid blame on the government for trying to pressure the BBC to change the tone of its coverage of the Iraq war. “Our integrity is under attack, and we are chastised for taking a different view on editorial matters from that of the government and its supporters. Because we have had the temerity to do this, it is hinted that a system that has protected the BBC for 80 years should be swept away and replaced by an external regulator that will ‘bring the BBC to heel.'”

It is unprecedented for a serving BBC chairman to attack a government of the day in such stark terms. His remarks underline the animosity that now exists between the corporation and Prime Minister Tony Blair’s most senior cabinet allies.

Culture secretary Tessa Jowell responded Sunday by pledging that the government would “uphold completely” the BBC’s independence and that the row over Radio 4 correspondent Andrew Gilligan’s reports the government had “sexed up” the threat from Iraqi chemical weapons in an intelligence dossier would have no bearing on her consideration of the BBC’s charter and license fee later this year.

“Once again, the government repeats: There is no question whatsoever of the dispute with the BBC over Mr. Gilligan’s claim affecting in any shape or form the BBC’s license fee or its charter,” Jowell said, speaking on BBC News 24. “We have made it plain throughout that we will uphold completely the independence of the BBC. This has been stated time and again. The charter review that is due in the normal way will be conducted in the normal way without any reference whatever to recent events.”

She continued, “We entirely reject the BBC chairman’s attempt to confuse our desire to correct the original story by Mr. Gilligan with an attack on the BBC’s independence.”

Jowell’s comments come two days after she said the government would take “very seriously indeed” any recommendations made by the inquiry into David Kelly’s death in relation to the BBC. Kelly, a Ministry of Defense weapons expert, was the BBC’s primary source for Gilligan’s story.

BBC said on Sunday that it welcomed Jowell’s clarification that the charter review process will be unaffected by events over the last few weeks. It also welcomed her statement that the government has no intention or interest in undermining the independence of the BBC.

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