Government adverts could appear on the BBC under radical plans to slash state spending on public information messages. The move raises the prospect of a return to our screens of the likes of the Seventies favourites Reginald Molehusband and Charley the cat.
The Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude is in talks with BBC bosses about running a series of adverts on their TV and radio stations to publicise next year's census, instead of spending hundreds of thousands of pounds on slots on commercial channels.
But it could go much further than the long-standing relationship under which the BBC had the power to choose what it broadcast. Insiders believe ministers could now demand regular slots for government information films. It is part of a move to rein in Whitehall's £200m annual advertising and marketing bill, which will also include a major overhaul of government websites to carry public service messages.
While the plan could save money, it would also be seen as a major intervention in the commercial market at a time when print and broadcast media have yet to see advertising revenues recover to pre-recession levels. For example, the Department of Health's swine flu advertising campaign cost more than £15m.
Last night, however, the BBC Trust issued a strongly worded statement firmly opposing the idea of the Government demanding regular publicity slots, which could have "serious implications for the corporation's independence and impartiality".
The ad agency M4C, working for the Government's Central Office of Information, is now analysing how much time BBC channels spend promoting their own shows, compared to rivals in the private sector and Channel 4. It is thought the data would be used to prove the value of the savings made by switching government ads from commercial channels to the BBC. Such a move would require a change to the BBC charter, which gives the corporation complete independence over the content of its broadcasts.
The broadcast union Bectu backs the idea, with the general secretary, Gerry Morrissey, insisting it "it makes sense for the Government to use the public service broadcaster", given the state of the nation's finances. "It is in the BBC's best interest to co-operate with the Government on these requests in order to ensure the best possible result in future licence fee negotiations," he said.
But some industry figures believe it could pave the way for an independently funded BBC, eroding its reliance on the licence fee. Peter Bazalgette, who devised a number of successful BBC shows before launching Big Brother on Channel 4, said the contents of the ads would be crucial. "If it's a general public message, for example talking about sexually transmitted diseases, then that's fine, but I'm critical if it promotes the Government's own agenda rather than anything for the good of the public. That would seriously damage impartiality."
The BBC Trust said the Government has yet to approach it directly, but warned it was for the BBC "alone to decide what it broadcasts and when". It added: "Furthermore, if the BBC were to broadcast free of charge advertising content that could otherwise appear on commercial channels, that would be likely to have an adverse impact on the wider market."
Mr Maude made clear his intention to use the BBC and government websites to spread public service messages. Since taking office, he has frozen all government advertising, with any exceptions having to be approved by him. "Instead of paying £200m to buy advertising space in the media, why shouldn't we use publicly owned channels such as government websites to deliver public service messages?"
The number of government websites is to be halved, with greater use made of the millions of people who visit them each year. It could mean, for example, road safety adverts appearing prominently on the Department for Transport's website.
From green giants to cartoon cats: How Whitehall used TV to get its word across
1. Green Cross Code Man, 1975
Message: Don't cross near parked cars. Dave Prowse, who went on to play Darth Vader, helped to cut child road casualties by 11 per cent
2. Give Up before you Clog Up, 2003
Message: Smoking clogs your arteries.
A British Heart Foundation warning featuring fatty goo oozing out of cigarettes. The most successful anti-smoking campaign to date
3. Children's Heroes, 1976
Message: Road safety for children.
England's football captain Kevin Keegan teaches an awestruck child how to cross the road safely
4. Charley Says ... , 1973
Message: Child safety.
A ginger cat warns children against dangers including matches, strangers and deep water. Voted the nation's favourite public information film
5. Youngsters, Learn to Swim, 1973
Message: Value of swimming lessons.
Featured Rolf Harris, in Speedos and artfully-sculpted facial hair
6. AIDS Monolith, 1987
Message: AIDS: Don't die of Ignorance.
Hard-hitting campaign that emphasised anyone could get the disease, "gay or straight, male or female"
7. Charley Junior's School Days, 1949
Message: Educational reforms.
A sickly-sweet film on progressive schools policy, featuring a baby being introduced to the wonders of the education system that awaits him
8. Coughs and Sneezes, 1945
Message: Coughs and sneezes spread diseases
Used slapstick humour to encourage people to use a handkerchief, designed to reduce absenteeism from work
9. Accrington Stanley Milk, 1988
Message: Drink milk.
A Scouse lad tells his mate that Liverpool striker Ian Rush warned him to drink milk or he would only be good enough to play for Accrington Stanley
10. Joe and Petunia, 1968
Message: Coastguard and water safety.
Description: Holidaying couple enjoy a trip to the beach, in cheerful ignorance of a boater's cries for help