Gov’t disapproves of BBC’s online services

Report finds Web presence limits biz opportunities

LONDON — The BBC’s online activities, reckoned to be the biggest in Europe, have been criticized by a British government report for being too commercial and not offering enough financial transparency.

The review, commissioned by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, is likely to be seized upon by commercial rivals.

They claim that the pubcaster’s huge online presence — totalling around 20,000 web sites — is limiting their business opportunities.

But the report, by ex-newspaper maven Philip Graf, praised “the high quality” and “user-friendly” nature of BBC Online’s services.

However, Graf noted that some sites — like games sites and ‘what’s on’ guides — were too similar to those provided by private operators and not in keeping with public service priorities.

He added: “There were indications that BBC Online may have had an adverse impact on competition, by deterring investment by commercial operators that would have led to new forms of competition.”

As the BBC appeared to have spent up to five times as much (around $170 mil) on developing its online presence as originally stated, Graf called for the pubcaster to be more open and accountable for its finances.

Last week, presenting the case for the renewal of its Royal Charter (due in 2006), the BBC said it was planning to close several of its web sites in what was clearly designed as a pre-emptive strike against the Graf report.

In the short term the pubcaster aims to shut down only five of its Web sties. There will be no job losses as a result of these closures.

BBC new media topper Ashley Highfield said: “We are closing the sites on the grounds that their market impact might be greater than their public value.”

But he denied that any of the BBC’s sites were unfairly competitive.

“We must always ensure that our sites are as distinctive as possible,” he said. “And most of the time we get it right. ”

In future, the Government wants BBC Online to be more effectively regulated and to ensure that so-called “public value” tests are applied before new sites are launched.

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