James Murdoch attacks digital switchover plan

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The Independent Online

James Murdoch, the chief executive of the satellite broadcaster BSkyB, hit out at the Government, the European Commission, the BBC and ITV yesterday in a remarkably combative performance in front of delegates at the television industry's major business conference.

The Government's digital switchover plans, the BBC licence fee and ITV's plea for yet more regulatory gifts all came under attack from Mr Murdoch, son of the company's chairman Rupert Murdoch.

Speaking at the biennial Royal Television Society conference in Cambridge, James Murdoch first trained his fire on a surprising target - the Government's plans, announced on Thursday at the conference by the Secretary of State Tessa Jowell - to force all consumers to switch over to digital television.

"We're uncomfortable with the element of compulsion ... it is an ultimatum. They [the Government] are saying this is about choice but at the root of this is them taking away a fundamental level of choice," Mr Murdoch said.

It is usually thought that the growth of digital television is helpful for Sky, as consumers who upgrade from analogue may well choose to go with the satellite group. It is possible, however, that the forced switch could favour Freeview, the free-to-air digital service. Mr Murdoch said yesterday that the company did not want to be part of some "policy initiative".

Speaking at part of a round-table discussion with ITV's chief executive Charles Allen and the BBC's director-general Mark Thompson, he went on to question the licence fee that funds the BBC. He called it a "tax on the population" and wondered how much the BBC would get when the Government settles the level of the licence fee next time. He also called the BBC's recently announced plans to make some of its programmes available on a new broadband service "a huge intervention".

Mr Murdoch was sceptical about the BBC Trust that would properly scrutinise this initiative. "They will consult, see the objections raised but then say to go-ahead anyway."

Turning to the negotiations between the Premier League and regulators at the European Commission about the auction of the next round of Premiership TV rights, he said the Commission was floating ideas in an "unhelpful" way. Brussels is seeking to limit the number of games that Sky can have.

ITV's Mr Allen has recently suggested that the £340m a year that Sky paid last time to clinch all the football rights was below the odds. Mr Murdoch turned to him and said: "With all due respect, Charles, I know what the numbers are and you're dead wrong."