BBC barters on charter

With job cuts planned, BBC fights for fee

LONDON — As BBC staff returned to work following Monday’s 24-hour strike over 4,000 planned job cuts, chairman Michael Grade warned against any moves to end the Beeb’s exclusive grip on the license fee that funds it.

The plea against so-called “top-slicing the license fee” came as the BBC published its response to the government’s Green Paper, a pre-legislative document about the pubcaster’s future.

Rival Channel 4, a pubcaster/commercial hybrid funded by advertising revenue, wants some of the BBC’s coin. It claims its commitment to public service is threatened by the spread of digital services.

But Grade, a former CEO of C4, warned Tuesday that giving up funding would compromise the BBC’s independence from the government.

He said: “It would hand a punitive fiscal sword of Damocles to any unscrupulous government that wanted to bring the BBC to heel.

“And it would seriously weaken the BBC’s ability to invest in content at a time when the provision of public service programming from other public service providers is in doubt.”

The BBC is renegotiating its 10-year operational contract, called the Royal Charter, with the government, which will decide the terms of the next license fee, levied on all U.K. homes that have a TV set.

Many believe that the pubcaster’s director general, Mark Thompson, would not be attempting to cut one in five jobs so quickly were it not for the need to impress ministers.

BBC unions plan two more strikes for next week, but both sides have agreed to meet at U.K. industrial conciliation org Acas on Thursday in an attempt to bring a settlement.

“Clearly the BBC would not have agreed to go unless they were prepared to negotiate,” said Gerry Morrissey, general secretary of broadcasting union Bectu.

Thompson told reporters at a London media gabfest that he was keen to restart talks with the unions.

“We can’t make the need for change or its scale go away, but we’re prepared to be very flexible about how we go about it,” Thompson said.

Asked if the BBC could have better handled the proposed job cuts, he said: “I don’t think so really. They are quite radical changes. The scale and nature of the changes, rather than the way they were communicated, means this is a very difficult period for us.”

Meanwhile, the BBC named four bidders for its BBC Broadcast unit that provides content distribution services, including electronic program guides, subtitling and video-on-demand.

The bidders are Apax Partners, Exponent Private Equity, Macquarie Group and Thomson/Technicolor.

The unit could be sold for as much as $274 million, according to U.K. press reports