There's one small problem for the BBC's new hi-tech dreams - MPs

Politicians steering the corporation's future say it could be straying too far from its public service remit
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Some will find a certain irony in the remarks of the BBC's director-general, Mark Thompson, last week when he admitted to the Royal Television Society that "you can't impose a programme strategy top-down - the whole BBC has to accept it". The problem for Thompson, who has been seeking to ensure the corporation's popularity in the longer term, is that his staff dislike his management style. An internal survey has revealed that 87 per cent think their director-general ignores them. Since the departure of Greg Dyke in 2003, the proportion of staff who believe Thompson takes note of their opinions has declined from 54 per cent to 13 per cent.

But if the director-general can endure internal hostility while completing 6,000 job cuts (to save £355m per year for programme making), he can less easily afford to offend MPs, who will decide on the BBC's future beyond the 10-year charter renewal it has just negotiated.

In discussing the deal for 2006-12, politicians were persuaded that key decisions about the future of the licence fee and the scale of the BBC should be left until next time. Willingness to smooth the switch to digital, combined with sympathy over the BBC's mauling by the Hutton Inquiry, curbed the ambitions of reformers. But the conclusions of the Creative Future project to define the BBC's ambitions for the next five years - described by Thompson as "faster and more radical than anything we've seen before" - have left some legislators feeling that he is trying to shut down debate before it has started.

"There is definitely a bouncing operation going on," says Nigel Evans, the Conservative MP for Ribble Valley and a member of the Media Select Committee. "The BBC is not supposed to be chasing ratings, but I don't think Mr Thompson understands that. I do not want a commercialised BBC; I want a public service broadcaster. If the director-general goes down the route he has described we will put him on a commercial basis which means no licence fee and funding by subscription."

But Don Foster, the Liberal Democrat media spokesman, denies Thompson is guilty of steamrolling the agenda. "His eagerness for technological change is vivid and he is right to set out these issues. If the BBC is to be the pre-eminent public service broadcaster in the world then it has to be a major player on new platforms."

Foster, though, has a different concern: the new BBC Trust which will replace the Board of Governors. "Mark Thompson is far too sanguine about the BBC Trust. He believes it is independent; I do not. I think it is part of the BBC and as such it cannot be an independent regulator."

As the corporation expands into digital, online and new-media services, Foster fears an absence of independent scrutiny will cause problems. He accepts that the BBC was set up as a market distorter, and believes it must remain one to succeed. But "I have huge concerns about how we market-test. There must be very careful regulation of the BBC's quasi-commercial activities."

Nigel Evans believes the BBC's hunger to justify the universal licence fee is pushing it into media sectors that can be better served by commercial competitors. He points to ambitions such as the Creative Future target to make the BBC "the premier destination for unsigned bands and to seize the opportunities of broadband, podcasting and mobile". Evans says: "I don't recall Mark Thompson coming to our committee and telling us that was his vision of the future. The role of the BBC is to commission top quality programming that is not available elsewhere. Mark Thompson has misjudged his audience. To accept money for public service and then sidestep the obligation is wrong."

Don Foster says that Thompson deals with poli-ticians more effectively and candidly than either of his predecessors. But he shares concerns about the extent of commercial ambitions. "The BBC should not be the primary signer of new talent and it should not make computers for schools." He is also concerned about the corporation's plans for local television. "What effects will that have on existing services, local newspapers and local radio? We need to have a thorough debate about that."

His views coincide with those of commercial rivals who accuse the BBC of making a "digital land-grab" at licence-payers' expense.

But for Media Select Committee member Helen Southworth, Labour MP for Warrington South, opportunities to promote social inclusion outweigh concerns about market distortion. Southworth recently visited a project at which elderly disabled people were put in contact with each other via digital television screens. "The real challenge for the BBC is to make sure we use the opportunities digital transfer offers to expand out and give everyone access to services like that," said Southworth. "Knowledge and information must be shared out. Inclusivity is a prime duty for the BBC. They recognise that; I will make sure they stick to it."

Fellow Labour MP Greg Pope is less optimistic. He is preparing an Early Day Motion that will alarm Mark Thompson. "I am concerned that we are about to get a big rise in the licence fee and that there will not be proper parliamentary scrutiny. It is a tax and if it goes up to £200 it will be a real burden on my constituents. In future the licence fee level should at least be subject to a vote in both Houses of Parliament - my motion will propose that." Pope expects his EDM to attract cross-party support. If that happens it will confirm that Mark Thompson's digital ambitions are running ahead of parliamentary opinion as well as alarming his staff.

The BBC has won the charter it wanted to see it through to 2016. It faces a more daunting challenge to persuade legislators that its funding and scale should allow it to dominate every sector of the market in the second generation of digital innovation. Mark Thompson's desire to please all the listeners and viewers all the time marks such a dramatic expansion of the BBC's role that MPs would like to be consulted about it, not lectured.


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