BBC chief goes on the offensive

Thompson slams 'top slicing' of license fee

BBC director-general Mark Thompson has denounced U.K. government plans to divert part of the pubcaster’s funding to commercial news services.

In his first public statement on what is called here “top slicing” the BBC license fee, proposed in last week’s Digital Britain report, Thompson said the move could compromise the BBC’s independence.

His remarks, made in an interview broadcast by BBC Radio 4’s “Media Show” on Wednesday, have intensified the battle over the future of the license fee, paid by all U.K. homes with TVs, which funds the BBC.

“There is a suspicion that for some years now there has been a small group of people who have been ideologically focused more on … trying to prove a point about the principle of top-slicing, rather than having a particular urgent need,” he said.

“When Ofcom (the U.K. media regulator) was interested in a public service publisher, it was going to take about £100 million ($115 million), and the license fee looked like a good source for that. Then it was Channel 4 that was going to need £100 million, and the license fee was a good source for it. Now, we are told regional news might need £100 million.”

He added that the “risk 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.”

The government is consulting on plans to take 3.5% of the license fee — around $214 million a year — beginning in 2013 to fund non-BBC news programs and possibly locally made children’s shows.

In the meantime, policymakers want to use the surplus from BBC coin earmarked to help disadvantaged groups switch to digital TV, approximately $330 million, to pay for commercial pilot news services in England, Scotland and Wales.

A spokesman for the government’s department of culture, media and sport, co-publisher of Digital Britain, said: “We are disappointed with Mark Thompson’s comments and hope the BBC will engage constructively in the forthcoming consultation.

“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 license fee to do so is the best and fairest idea so far, but, as we have said, we will happily consider others.”