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England threatens bbc breakup

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Government threatens to break up BBC


THE BBC is facing the most radical shake-up in its history in a proposed overhaul that could split its Scottish operation from the rest of the UK as ministers seize on the crisis following the Hutton report.

Leaked Whitehall documents reveal that ministers are considering the complete dismantling of the Corporation, with regional wings being allowed to develop into "separate entities".

There are also plans to strip the BBC of its long-standing editorial independence, putting it under the control of an outside regulator and giving MPs more say over its affairs.

The proposals come with the Corporation still reeling from the Hutton report two weeks ago, which led to the resignations of BBC director general Greg Dyke and chairman of the Board of Governors Gavyn Davies.

The Corporation’s charter is up for renewal in 2006, and it now appears that ministers are planning to capitalise on the BBC’s current weakness to press home massive reforms.

Among them are proposals to split the BBC into "separate entities for England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland".

The papers add that there could be more scope "to reduce perceived metropolitan bias".

"How far is it essential for the BBC to be organised on a UK-wide basis?" it asks.

That suggests that BBC Scotland could soon become an independent body, able to make its own decisions on programme making without reference to the board of governors in London.

Other reforms in the papers are to strip the governors of their regulating role, and to hand the powers to Ofcom, the new media watchdog.

As revealed in Scotland on Sunday two weeks ago, plans to "top-slice" a portion of the BBC’s £2.6m-a-year licence fee and hand the cash out to ITV and other commercial broadcasters are also proposed.

The papers also suggest that the BBC should close down new services which do not fulfil its role as a public service broadcaster.

The documents are likely to form the basis for a green paper on the BBC’s new charter.

The proposals will be greeted with dismay by those who consider the BBC’s nationwide character to be a crucial component holding the UK together. But nationalists will be delighted by the plans. If enacted, they would allow BBC Scotland chiefs to decide for themselves on their own programme schedule.

For example, the decision to run a ‘Scottish Six’ could be taken autonomously by Scottish bosses, without having to defer to London.

A BBC Scotland source said the government’s plans would not come as any surprise, and claimed that they were broadly in line with those being mooted by Dyke prior to his departure.

"Before Greg Dyke resigned, this was being looked at," the source said.

"He was very keen to ensure that more production was set up around the country, in the north of England and Scotland.

"But that move relied on his personal backing. These new plans would mean that we could do as we wished."

Despite ministers having insisted, post-Hutton, that the BBC’s editorial independence would be respected, the documents make it clear that the government is looking at bringing it into line with other broadcasters, which are watched over by Ofcom.

The papers ask: "Should it [the charter review] leave the BBC with an effective power of veto as at present?"

Instead of having total independence, the papers suggest that BBC chiefs could face scrutiny by MPs.

They also ask whether the massive expansion of digital TV under Dyke is compatible with its role as a public broadcaster. The doubts expressed in the paper mean that new channels such as BBC 3 and 4 could be under threat.

And instead of chasing ratings, the documents suggest that the BBC should create more educational and upmarket programmes.

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