BBC chairman hits out at 'middle-class' viewers

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The Independent Online

The chairman of the BBC lambasted "white, middle-class, middle-aged" people yesterday for demanding more from their licence fee.

Gavyn Davies said the viewers accusing the corporation of lowering its standards were the same people who consumed "a disproportionate amount of the BBC's services" compared with other groups.

"In some cases, the criticism of dumbing down is simply a respectable way of trying to hijack even more of the BBC's services for themselves," he said.

"The Asian teenager on the streets of Leicester has just as much right to be heard, and to be served, as a member of the House of Lords in Westminster, The fact is that they may not want the same thing, but we have to serve them both."

Mr Davies launched his attack at a meeting of the Westminster Media Forum, which was hosted by members of Parliament, and attended by leading figures from broadcasting and consumer groups, to examine how the public interest could be preserved in the expanding world of digital television and radio.

Facing fierce criticism over new services, such as digital children's channels, he claimed that programmes such as Blue Planet and the Trollope adaptation The Way We Live Now were among the best the BBC had ever made. They attracted audiences five or 10 times as large as landmark programmes of the past such as Civilisation and The Ascent of Man.

But he said to continue serving the public and justifying the licence fee, currently £109 a year, the BBC could not just serve minority tastes, even though that was "inconvenient" for competitors. "I do want the BBC to remain, in the digital age, a mass-market public service broadcaster, not one which is confined to a tiny corner of the market, like the public service broadcasters in the United States."

However, Tessa Jowell, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, has thrown a spanner in the works by further delaying the decision on the BBC's proposed new digital channel for young people, BBC3. The commercial television sector, and particularly Channel 4 which has its own youth channel, E4, has claimed the service would cost it £25 million a year although the BBC's experts has said the penalty to rivals would be in the region of £4 million.

Ms Jowell said she wanted those figures clarified before she decided whether BBC3 was sufficiently distinctive to be given the go-ahead at a time when the commercial companies are feeling the squeeze from the biggest fall in advertising revenues for a decade.

Mr Davies said every month that passed without the channel's launch represented a loss of £80m from the money allocated for UK television producers. The rebuff is the second the BBC has faced over the BBC3 proposal – it was originally rejected by the Government for having an insufficient public service remit.

Ms Jowell also announced that a long-held Government promise to review the BBC's rolling news service, BBC News 24, will be led by Richard Lambert, the former editor of the Financial Times. Rival station Sky and members of the Culture Select Committee had argued the service was an inappropriate use of resources.