BBC privatisation begins

Memo shows corporation preparing 'nimble footwork' to justify transmitter sale
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THE BBC is preparing for the sell-off of its transmission service, the first privatisation of any part of the corporation. An internal document accidentally passed to the People newspaper shows that the BBC has examined privatisation options and will welcome the sale - if it is allowed to keep enough of the proceeds.

In language that is potentially embarrassing to BBC chiefs, the document also gives a frank analysis of the motives and positions of the political parties on the sale, and warns of possible industrial action by staff who may see it as a "betrayal".

The document says that:

n The Conservatives are "seen as lagging behind Labour" in communications issues and may want a new, radical policy after a "lacklustre party conference performance".

n The BBC will need to do some "nimble footwork" if it is to show that the sale is in the licence-payers' interest.

n Labour will oppose the sale, "although privately they admit some form of privatisation is inevitable" and renationalisation is "out of the question".

n The public - "the real 'owners' of the network because of their original investment" - will show a "general lack of awareness" of the implications of the sale, unless the BBC deliberately stimulates debate.

The possibility of the sale of the network of 1,400 transmitters, expected to raise pounds 100m, was first raised by the Government last year. It could be announced by Virginia Bottomley, Secretary of State for National Heritage, when Parliament returns this week, or in a Broadcasting Bill next month.

Written by Leigh Jackson, head of communications planning, the BBC document was faxed to Colin Browne, director of corporate affairs, and to Leighton Andrews, head of public affairs, in Blackpool, where the BBC hosts a reception for Tory MPs. But the fax was delivered by mistake to the People's political editor, Nigel Nelson, staying at the same hotel.

Privatisation would affect 750 staff and, the BBC says, potential redundancies would probably prompt protests or industrial action, particularly if the corporation is "not seen to offer robust opposition to [the] new regime".

Although a management buy-out might soften staff opposition, the document says, the "symbolic significance of the transmitter network for all staff might prompt wider protest action".

The paper sets out three options: full privatisation with the Treasury keeping all the money; a sale with the BBC keeping 80 per cent of the money; and a "majority sale" with the BBC keeping a 35 per cent stake.

A sale with all proceeds going to the Treasury would be opposed by the BBC, which would argue that it was a "sequestration of licence-payers' assets".

Sale with the BBC keeping 80 per cent of the cash would be a scenario which the BBC "would be able to welcome", although it would be seen internally as "bowing to political pressure".

The majority sale of the network, with the BBC retaining a substantial stake, say 35 per cent, would be welcomed with reservations even if it was opposed by BBC staff as the "thin end of the wedge".

BBC sources said yesterday that the document was an early draft and had not been approved by senior management. They said the reference to the Tories' "lacklustre" conference had been written early last week.

A spokesman said: "The BBC is not ideologically opposed to privatisation, but our main concern has been to ensure the best arrangement for licence- payers. In other words, value for money."

Roger Bolton, general secretary of the broadcasting union, Bectu, said: "We have clearly asked the BBC what its position was, and have been assured at senior level that they wished the transmitter network to remain an integral part of the BBC. It is therefore surprising to find there is a document in the BBC that is welcoming privatisation before the Government has even made up its mind. It does raise the prospect of collusion."

Chris Smith, Labour's heritage spokesman, denied that his party believed the sell-off was inevitable: "If the Government were to go ahead with the sale, it would be yet another foolish gesture to ideology rather than common sense. The BBC ought to be opposing it as robustly as they can. We certainly will."