BBC boss condemns £130m regional news funding plan

BBC director general Mark Thompson today came out firmly against proposals to give £130m to fund commercial regional news.

In an interview with the Media Show on BBC Radio 4, due to be broadcast this afternoon, Thompson said there were “no circumstances” in which the proposal would be a good idea.

He said moves towards so-called “top-slicing” of the licence fee appeared to be driven by “ideologically focused” individuals determined to “drive a wedge” into the principle of licence fee funding for the BBC.

Top-slicing was one of the key recommendations in last week’s Digital Britain report by communications minister Lord Carter and legislation is expected to be introduced in this autumn’s Queen’s Speech following a brief consultation.

Lord Carter argued that from 2013, about 3.5 per cent of the fee could be allocated to public service programming on non-BBC channels such as ITV and Channel 4 to support important but unprofitable services including regional news and shows for children.

The chairman of the BBC Trust, Sir Michael Lyons, warned on the report’s publication on 16 June that the fee should not be used as a “slush fund” and that top-slicing would “damage BBC output, reduce accountability and compromise independence”.

Today, his concerns were echoed by Thompson, who told the Media Show: “I believe that the risk in the end 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.”

And he added: “When Ofcom was interested in a public service publisher, it was going to take about £100 million and the licence fee looked like a good source for that. Then it was Channel 4 that was going to need perhaps £100 million and the licence fee was a good source for it. Now, we are told regional news might need £100 million.

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

Thompson’s interview can be heard in full on the Media Show at 1.30pm today on BBC Radio 4.

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