BBC launches public attack on Murdoch 'imperialism'

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The Independent Online

The controller of BBC1 launched an unprecedented attack on Rupert Murdoch yesterday, calling the media billionaire a "capital imperialist" who wants to destabilise the corporation because he "is against everything the BBC stands for".

Lorraine Heggessey said Mr Murdoch's continued attacks on the BBC stemmed from a dislike of the public sector. But he did not understand that the British people "have a National Health Service, a public education system" and trust organisations that are there for the benefit of society and not driven by profit.

Her controversial comments, in an interview with The Independent, are believed to be the first time a senior BBC executive has publicly attacked the motives of the media tycoon. They follow an intensification of anti-BBC rhetoric from Mr Murdoch's side.

The BBC has been alarmed by the increasingly close relationship between the Government and Mr Murdoch's British newspapers, at a time when the BBC's relationship with New Labour is strained as never before. The frostiness of the relationship has raised speculation that the Government will consider abolishing the licence fee in its forthcoming review of the BBC's charter.

Ms Heggessey's remarks will cheer supporters of the corporation who fear the BBC has kept quiet for too long in the face of attack from Mr Murdoch and his most senior employees.

Her comments come in the wake of a speech to the country's senior broadcasting executives by Tony Ball, chief executive of British Sky Broadcasting, in which Mr Murdoch's News Corporation is the major shareholder.

Mr Ball told the Edinburgh International Television Festival last week that the BBC ought to be forced to sell its most successful programmes, such as EastEnders, Casualty and Have I Got News For You to its commercial rivals, who would screen all future episodes instead. The money raised by such sales should then be ploughed into experimental programming, he said.

Executives at the BBC and elsewhere see the plan as a Murdoch-inspired attempt to cripple the corporation by depriving it of its most popular shows - and the large audiences that go with them.

Mr Ball told a questioner at the festival that it "would not be such a disaster" if the BBC were eventually to become a marginal broadcaster.

But Ms Heggessey retorted: "It wouldn't be such a disaster for Sky because he hopes that the less successful we become, the more people will subscribe to Sky. It would be a disaster for the BBC."

Supporters of the BBC say Mr Ball's proposal, intended to influence the Government's hand as it considers the renewal of the BBC's charter, follows relentlessly negative reports in Mr Murdoch's British newspapers about the BBC's conduct in the David Kelly affair. The Times and The Sun, in particular, have come under attack for what is perceived as anti-BBC bias.

"I would suspect that everybody who works for Rupert Murdoch knows what he expects of them and they know that if they don't deliver they will be booted out," said Ms Heggessey. Newspaper readers "know when they are being peddled a line," she added.

In his speech, Mr Ball proposed two further restrictions to be placed on the BBC, which he argued would prevent the corporation it from straying too far into territory he regards as the sole domain of commercial broadcasters such as his own.

The BBC should be banned from buying any foreign-made material, he said. This would prevent the BBC from pushing up the price of American sitcoms, Hollywood movies and Australian soap operas, the staples of many commercial channels. "I really cannot see why public money is being diverted to those poor struggling Hollywood studios," he said.

Ms Heggessey said BBC1 did not run any overseas-originated programmes during peak time but "the audience expects us to run movies and we do".

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