Media: BBC should be killed off, says Channel 5 chief

In a remarkably forthright attack, Channel 5's chief executive last night accused the Government of colluding with the BBC against the interests of viewers. Rob Brown, Media Editor, believes David Elstein's arguments for the abolition of the licence fee can only gather force.

A champagne reception was held in the famous picture gallery of Royal Holloway College in Surrey last night after David Elstein had delivered the annual Reed lecture on The Politics of Broadcasting in the New Millennium.

But no one was toasting the 75th anniversary of the BBC. For the central thesis of Mr Elstein's address was that the corporation in its present form should not survive, far less be celebrated.

It was not the first time he has expounded this argument. He started calling for the abolition of the television licence fee and for the conversion of the BBC into a subscription pay-TV system in his previous role as head of programmes at BSkyB. But he has never stated his case as strongly as he did last night in one of the oldest colleges of the University of London.

Channel 5's chief executive not only ripped into the paternalistic and imperialistic Reithian tradition at the BBC, but accused the Government of seeking to preserve a licensed state broadcaster because such an institution is easier to bully.

"New Labour is not about to abandon decades of inherited thinking, nor the levels of political control," said Mr Elstein.

"The Labour Party may call itself New Labour, but its instincts on broadcasting remain as unconvincing as ever. The Labour Party has yet to realise that, in the modern age, the consent of the consumer must come first. It is time for us to let go of nanny, and for nanny to let go of us."

Mr Elstein described the licence fee as "the last of the regressive taxes which hit the poor much harder than the rich" and forecast that it would become increasingly indefensible as the BBC's share of audience steadily fell in a multi-channel era.

Noting that the BBC's total share of viewing in multi-channel homes was less than 30 per cent, he said: "It is unimaginable that any other public service, ignored by its customers for three-quarters of the time in favour of private competitors, could continue to justify being funded by a compulsory tax on all households generating more than pounds 2bn a year."

Mr Elstein's argument will cut little ice with Chris Smith, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, who supports the licence fee as the bedrock of the BBC and a cornerstone of British culture. But Mr Smith will not be in charge of that ministry for ever.

This danger is recognised by David Docherty, the BBC's deputy director of television, who put the case for keeping the licence fee at Policy Studies Institute seminar on Monday.

Mr Docherty acknowledged that the BBC would probably flourish on a subscription basis, but it could not remain the world-renowned public service broadcaster it has been up to now.

"If we contrive to disinvent the BBC, no other generation will be able to create the circumstances to re-invent it. And, if it does not survive, if we allow some clever bastard to argue us out of it, we should take the shame to our graves," Mr Docherty said.

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