Bottomley to put BBC transmitters on market

Charter renewal: Provisions will cover taste and decency
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Political Editor

Virginia Bottomley, the Secretary of State for National Heritage, is today expected to announce a pounds 100m plan to privatise the BBC transmitter network, along with publication of the Corporation's new Charter.

The Charter, which will be debated early in the present session of Parliament, will contain new provisions committing the BBC to publicly acceptable standards of taste, decency and impartiality.

But Mrs Bottomley is also expected in a written answer to make it clear that the Government will go ahead with plans to sell off the network of 1,800 transmitters in what would effectively be the first privatisation of any part of the BBC.

Although publication of the Charter comes at a highly sensitive time for the BBC - with some Tories planning to use any debate on the BBC to criticise its Panorama interview with Princess Diana - the proposed Charter has not been redrafted to set out any new standards for dealings with the Royal Family.

Mrs Bottomley is understood to have resisted pressures from some Tory MPs to introduce a new clause into the Broadcasting Bill intended to give strengthened statutory force to the BBC's long-standing undertakings on impartiality - not least on the grounds that it has little place in a Bill dealing with cross-media ownership and digital television.

Although the BBC has argued in the past that issues like the treatment of violence, explicit sex and bad language - as well as impartiality - are adequately dealt with by their own internal guidelines, they are not expected to oppose the new Charter clauses, which Mrs Bottomley alluded to at the Tory conference in October.

The Charter is not subject to amendment in the Commons, but there have been signs that some Tory backbenchers are seeking to use the debate to argue that senior BBC management failed in their duty to warn the chairman, Marmaduke Hussey, of the plans to screen the Princess Diana interview.

The decision not to give early warning to Mr Hussey is thought to have brought to a head severe and long running tensions between the BBC chairman and the director general, John Birt, which could surface at a meeting of the BBC's Board of Governors on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, Mrs Bottomley will argue that the go-ahead for privatisation of the transmitter network - regarded by ministers as a discrete section of the BBC - does not conflict with the commitment set out in the White Paper published last year by her predecessor, Peter Brooke, to retaining a publicly-owned, licence-funded Corporation.

The plan to privatise the transmitter network originally surfaced in October, when the Independent on Sunday and the Sunday People reported the contents of a draft internal BBC memo, which had been accidentally sent to a reporter.

The memo warned that privatisation could affect some of the 750 staff employed on transmitters and that industrial action by some workers was a possibility. It suggested that the BBC should argue either for some of the proceeds to revert to the BBC or for the retention of a 35 per cent share in the new private sector-led ownership.