City & Business: Accounting for Auntie

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The Independent Online
WAIT. One more question for the Minister: What's he going to do about the BBC? The corporation is non-profit making, but it is the largest creative industry company in Britain. It is also Government owned. So Mr Smith has direct control over it. The BBC's success in the globalising media industry is crucial to the success of the Government's plan to raise our standard of living by developing the economic potential of British creativity.

There have been noises from Mr Smith about making the BBC more accountable. The BBC has just signed a deal with Discovery, the US cable and television production operation that is 48 per cent owned by TCI, the low-profile media giant controlled by Rupert Murdoch and Ted Turner peer John Malone.

The BBC says the Discovery deal goes a long way toward securing its future, because it affords a profitable foothold in the US. Former BBC employees in New York say this is not true. They maintain the BBC was eaten alive by Discovery - that the Discovery people will give the BBC money and cable access in the US but rob it of the larger opportunity to establish the BBC brand name in mainstream America in return.

The deal is too complex for any easy judgment on who's right. The BBC's hitherto unfortunate history in the US is a byzantine tale of missed opportunity and ducked responsibility. The other question for Mr Smith is this: Why can't he ask the BBC to prepare a financial statement that lays out where it has used its resources, beyond programming, to develop its position in the brave new world of 500-channel TV, and what it has got in return?

No doubt the BBC will say it has already provided tonnes of such information. But name me one person outside a select band at the top of the corporation who can make heads or tails of the BBC's financial statements.

Why shouldn't the BBC be responsible for presenting its financial position in a format that allows City analysts and anyone else with a financial bent to venture an opinion as to whether its Discovery deal - and other such efforts to secure its future - are likely to earn a decent return for the Government and licence-fee payers?

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