Media: Aunty as a media mogul: Brian Cox thinks it's time the BBC made its mark in the global market

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The Independent Online
Today two cabinet ministers, Michael Heseltine and Peter Brooke, meet a select group of broadcasting chiefs to see how the Government can help the industry flourish in the exploding world of media markets. It is a Department of Trade and Industry initiative: Mr Heseltine and his officials badly want to see a big British player succeed in the great new global contest created by the emerging digital technologies, in telecommunications as well as broadcasting. They half-believe the BBC ought to be that big player.

Could the corporation be the British answer to Rupert Murdoch and the new American mega-media groups? Later this month the think-tank Demos will publish a paper by Ian Hargreaves, deputy editor of the Financial Times and a former director of news and current affairs at the BBC, which makes a formidable case that it could - but only if it was privatised and allowed to sell advertising.

Mr Hargreaves's radical proposal highlights the core problem the BBC would face: a publicly funded organisation dedicated to public service has the wrong culture and not enough money to make the high-risk, expensive investments required, and in Europe at least the Treaty of Rome properly limits the ability of public broadcasters to engage in the commercial market-place.

The BBC certainly produces the volume of programming needed for the new markets, and it has a high reputation, but much of its output (like that of ITV and Channel 4) is geared to British tastes.

All round the world audiences prefer programmes made in their own cultures, but if these are not available, then American programmes fill the gap: they are cheap (thanks to the vast US domestic market having already covered their costs) and 70 years of Hollywood successes have created global audiences for American fiction.

Therein lies the key thought that Mr Heseltine and Mr Brooke ought to embrace. There may be only a modest international market for British television programmes, but even that will be threatened if the domestic production base is not cherished.

Cable and satellite channels produce scarcely any original shows other than news and sport. The Government has so far exempted them from the European Union's broadcasting directive requiring them to have at least 51 per cent of European programmes, though this is required of the BBC, ITV and C 4.

Mr Murdoch is saying BSkyB will make pounds 180m profit next year - more than the ITV companies together are likely to make. Mr Brooke recently advised Sky channels to start making British programmes. He could put muscle into that advice by applying the directive's requirements now.

ITV's expenditure on production equals the BBC's, and comes with none of the legal and financial problems that inhibit the BBC's ability to use programme production as a platform for international expansion. Yet, perversely, the Government has frustrated Britain's commercial media from taking on an international role by perpetuating an ITV fragmented into 15 small companies and preventing ITV companies and Fleet Street papers from merging with each other. It is that combined print and TV operation that lies behind the success of European media giants such as Bertelsmann and Kirch in Germany and Havas in France.

If the Government allowed a free-for-all in the commercial sector, we would rapidly see the emergence of three or four big British media groups, based round companies such as Pearson, Carlton and Reed. To my mind that would make more sense than privatising the BBC and ending a 70-year tradition of public service.

Mind you, if the Government were serious about a Big British Player that could take on the likes of Viacom-Paramount, Time Warner and Rupert Murdoch, it should sell the BBC to British Telecom . . . .

The writer is director of corporate affairs for LWT.