Digital age could be divisive says Birt

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THE DIGITAL age will increase social division and undermine national culture, Sir John Birt, the director-general of the BBC, will warn tonight.

Sir John, who has invested millions of pounds of public money into the BBC's digital technology, will stress that "significant difficulties" need to be overcome if people and organisations are to benefit rather than suffer from the multi-channel digital revolution.

In a speech on the social, political and cultural consequences of the digital age entitled "The Prize and the Price", Sir John will say that the instant availability of the "raucous, the vulgar and the sensationalist" will degrade the British national culture.

While millions shared in the experience of watching events such as the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales, and the Wimbledon final, the advent of multi-channel television could mean that fewer and fewer viewers watch the same programmes, Sir John will suggest.

As viewers are forced to pay not only for sport or films but also drama and comedies, the digital age could increase social division, Sir John will say. He anticipates the possible emergence of an "information poor" who are unable to pay for the "quality of information, insight and entertainment" enjoyed by richer viewers.

Sir John, who will be replaced by Greg Dyke next spring, will voice his misgivings in the New Statesman Media Lecture in London. He will emphasise the BBC's responsibility to counterbalance the dangers of the digital age, in particular the emergence of an American global culture which is already apparent on satellite and cable channels.

The BBC must become a digital "civilising force" which will act as a a cultural guardian of British values, he will say, repeating his his calls for an increase in the licence fee.