MPs meet Murdoch on junket to Tinseltown

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MPs investigating the future of the BBC have enjoyed a week-long junket at public expense to Los Angeles, where they met Rupert Murdoch.

MPs investigating the future of the BBC have enjoyed a week-long junket at public expense to Los Angeles, where they met Rupert Murdoch.

The Culture, Media and Sport Committee's five-night trip to Tinseltown last month at a cost of several thousand pounds for the nine MPs was a fact-finding mission for its inquiry into the renewal of the BBC's charter. A similar trip last year to research the British film industry cost about £30,000.

The latest visit raises the question of whether California is the best place for MPs to research the future of the BBC, when the US has a dismal track record in public service broadcasting. Members of the committee argue that American firms are at the forefront of broadcasting technology and are therefore crucial to their inquiry into the BBC's charter.

Don Foster, the Liberal Democrat culture and media spokesman, said he hoped the committee could justify the expense to the taxpayer. "If the US offers cutting-edge technology, as is claimed, it also offers a public service broadcasting landscape to avoid," Mr Foster said.

"The public value of getting the BBC's Charter Review right is huge. But while the committee may have tourism under its remit, let's hope that the public cost of this trip can be justified entirely in terms of broadcasting," he added.

Members of the committee raised concerns beforehand about whether the trip was justified. Chris Bryant, the Labour MP for the Rhondda, originally opposed the visit but changed his mind.

He said: "We wanted our report on the future of the BBC to be well-informed and ahead of the game. The US leads the way technologically and our visit to more than a dozen companies opened our eyes to the changing nature of broadcasting. It was well worthwhile."

The committee, chaired by the veteran Labour backbencher Sir Gerald Kaufman, visited more than a dozen media organisations during the visit, but the highlight was a meeting with Mr Murdoch. The meeting with the News Corp chief was private and informal, and did not form part of the committee's official inquiry into the renewal of the BBC's charter.

Mr Murdoch makes regular trips to Britain, where his media interests include BSkyB and News International, publisher of The Sun and The Times, but because he is a US citizen, the select committee has no power to summon him to appear before them.

It is not the first time the committee has travelled to Los Angeles. In June 2003, the MPs visited the city as part of an inquiry into the British film industry. They flew British Airways business class and stayed at the Chateau Marmont hotel, a replica of an 18th- century French castle, on Sunset Boulevard.

A British Airways business class return ticket costs about £2,450, while standard rate rooms at the Chateau Marmont are priced at £220 a night. The committee remained within its stated budget and is believed to have received discounted rates, but the total cost is still likely to have been about £30,000.

A spokeswoman for the committee confirmed that the MPs visited Los Angeles last month but refused to comment on where they stayed or how much the trip cost. In its submission to the Government's review of its charter, entitled Building Public Value, the BBC outlined the problem with public service broadcasting in the US.

"PBS, the sole American public service television broadcaster, is a marginal broadcaster showing minority programmes in which commercial television has no interest," the BBC said.