Birt set for long fight over licence

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The Independent Online
John Birt, the BBC's Director General, will push the case for an increased television licence fee "for as long as it takes", he vowed yesterday, amid signs that the Government would refuse his request.

Speaking to the Independent on Sunday, Mr Birt conceded that the timing of the request, linked to the BBC's funding needs in the move to digital television, was "not very good" and that the campaign was likely to be "a long haul".

"In the period leading up to an election, this is not what the politicians want to hear," he said. "The timing is not of our choosing. The Government has started the process [of reviewing the fee]. I presume they have not done so with a closed mind."

Launching his campaign at the Edinburgh International Television Festival, Mr Birt said he would ask for a "modest, dynamic rise" in the fee, presently pounds 89.50 per colour set, taking it to more than pounds 100 by 1998.

But Sam Chisholm, Chief Executive of BSkyB, commented, tongue firmly in cheek: "The BBC has an annual income in excess of pounds 2bn - almost as much as the rest of the British television industry combined. But if it is having difficulty making ends meet, of course the public should be obliged to contribute substantially more at once."