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BBC chief attacks BSkyB at Edinburgh

Thompson seeks to divert attention from own troubles

Beleaguered BBC topper Mark Thompson left the U.K.’s most important annual TV talking shop, the Edinburgh Television Festival, which wrapped Aug. 29, with his credibility in somewhat better shape than when he arrived.

“His speech was a classical defense of the BBC’s role as a public service content provider,” opined David Docherty, an ex-Corp. high flyer who chairs the British Digital Television Group.

Faced by attacks from rivals, staff, politicians and a hostile press, Thompson sought, in his TV talk, to divert attention from how big the Beeb should be in a fully digital era, when public money will be in short supply, via an attack on its biggest rival, paybox BSkyB.

He proposed that BSkyB should follow the example of Fox in the U.S. — also owned by Rupert Murdoch — and be forced to pay retransmission fees to ITV, Channel 4 and Five.

Thompson added it was high time the satcaster “pulled its weight by investing much, much more in British talent and British content.”

His hourlong MacTaggart lecture, in part a response to James Murdoch’s 2009 Edinburgh keynote, in which the News Corp. boss accused the BBC of engaging in a “chilling land grab,” also contained some home truths regarding the perennial problem of Blighty’s inability to leverage its undisputed talent for TV in the world marketplace.

Despite “the extraordinary reservoirs of British talent,” compared with the likes of Disney and Time Warner, the U.K. would remain “a highly talented minnow” unless collectively the biz “invested and organized for success,” he said.

Before that debate can be fully engaged with, the future scale of the BBC needs to be decided.

Under Thompson, the BBC has pinkslipped thousands of staff and vowed to spend a greater proportion of its £3.5 billion ($5.4 billion) license fee income on content, rather than bureaucracy and management.

Yet even the BBC’s supporters are skeptical that Thompson is prepared to make the cuts likely to be necessary if, as expected, the new U.K. government reduces the BBC license fee in a year or so.

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