BBC Worldwide, the main commercial arm of the BBC, should be split from the corporation and turned into a global communications company brand to promote and sell British television programmes around the world, a committee of peers has recommended.
The Lords Committee on Communications, headed by Lord Fowler, the former Tory party chairman, wants part of Worldwide to be turned into a private company that can borrow money for expansion while keeping the link with BBC to give it a trusted brand name. The committee's report, published today, adds that the British film industry also suffers from the absence of a successful worldwide company that can promote its work. That finding will please ministers and independent film producers, but is likely to irritate the BBC's management which does not want to sell the division.
Worldwide handles the BBC's DVD sales, magazine and book publishing, and jointly owns with Virgin Media the UKTV channels. In 2007, Worldwide bought the Lonely Planet information travel group to build it up into a worldwide franchise. The deal was attacked by critics for using licence payers' money to buy into the travel-guide business. BBC Worldwide's chief executive, John Smith, has, however, said the organisation cannot grow further because it cannot run up any more debt.
The committee's report acknowledges the idea of part-privatisation is opposed by the BBC Trust, whose "attitude has been either dismissive or lukewarm to the idea of a public-private partnership".
British television employs 80,000 people, and brings in another £1bn in export earnings; the British film industry employs a further 35,000 a year and brings in £1bn a year in foreign earnings.