Lorraine Heggessey: Murdoch is 'against everything the BBC stands for'

The Monday Interview: Controller of BBC1
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The Independent Online

They are sentiments which until now have been conveyed only in whispers, conspiratorial asides over lunch with sympathetic journalists. Strictly for background, you understand, we could not possibly be seen to be saying this. Now for the first time, the BBC is prepared to say in public what its executives have long believed in private about Rupert Murdoch's long-running, destabilising campaign against the corporation.

Lorraine Heggessey, the controller of BBC1, does not show any signs of holding back when Mr Murdoch's name creeps into the conversation. "He is against everything the BBC stands for," she says. "He is a capital imperialist, isn't he? That's what he does. And all people of his political persuasion in the States are against the public sector."

Ms Heggessey, you will have spotted, is a fabulous departure from the I-speak-your-weight executives who so dominated the BBC under the last director general, John Birt. But her candour also appears to be part of a new policy at the BBC, no longer to turn the other cheek in the face of attacks from Murdoch's empire.

When Tony Ball, the chief executive of British Sky Broadcasting, of which Mr Murdoch's News Corporation is the largest shareholder, called at the Edinburgh International Television Festival this weekend for the Government to impose extraordinary restrictions on the BBC, the corporation hit back with an official statement surprising in its bluntness. Mr Ball's demand was part of "Rupert Murdoch's long and hostile campaign" against the corporation, it declared. "Thankfully for the British public, Mr Murdoch has not been successful."

Seasoned broadcasting executives at the festival could not recall the BBC publicly attacking Mr Murdoch's motives in this way before. But the corporation appears to have been incensed by Mr Ball's decision to use the festival's keynote address, the James MacTaggart Memorial Lecture, to call on the BBC to be cut down to size.

In particular, he proposed a system of "programme syndication" whereby the BBC would be obliged to put its most popular shows up for auction. It is a bizarre idea, but the motives behind it are plain to see.

"I haven't heard one senior person in the industry who has taken that proposal remotely seriously," says Ms Heggessey. "I almost feel: why bother to debate it? It is so obviously not plausible. For a start, it is extremely patronising towards ITV and the independent sector because it is suggesting that none of them is coming up with ideas. But it would potentially distort what the BBC does: if, in order to get more funding, we had to create hit shows, all we would be focusing on is creating those hit shows."

But if shows were immediately confiscated once they garnered big audiences, BBC1 would be left with only its more challenging, low-rated shows. It does not take a genius to spot that this would be very good news for satellite television channels and very bad news for the BBC. When watching BBC1 becomes a minority sport, how many people will be happy to continue to pay for the BBC?

"We know Sky is antipathetic to the BBC; and that the way viewers feel about BBC1affects the way they feel about the BBC more than any other single thing. Therefore, if you wanted to undermine the BBC, the first place you would start would be by trying to undermine BBC1," says Ms Heggessey.

In his speech, Mr Ball made great play of how he valued public service broadcasting. But his mask slipped at a question and answer session the next morning when he was asked if his scheme would marginalise the BBC, making it like public service broadcasters in so many other countries. "That is not the intent," he responded, "but that would not be such a disaster."

"It wouldn't be such a disaster for Sky," says Ms Heggessey wryly, "because what he hopes is that the less successful we become, the more people will subscribe to Sky. It would be a disaster for the BBC."

In Mr Ball's utopia, in time, the only programmes the BBC would make would be those that would not be made by the commercial sector. But Ms Heggessey is adamant that the BBC ought to have a bigger role than merely filling the gaps left by the other broadcasters. "If you start applying market failure arguments you end up with programmes that, on the whole, very few people will watch and [the BBC] will just dwindle and dwindle."

Unifying the nation under one organisation that the people feel is there for them, and represents them is a good in itself, she argues. The BBC provides, to use the phrase much loved in Television Centre, "social glue" for the country, binding it together. This, she says, was most apparent during "the jubilee coverage last year, the World Cup, sometimes with big events like Test The Nation, and at Christmas".

"I don't think a commercial channel would have put as much into the jubilee coverage as we did. We backed it at a time when people did not know whether it was going to be a success. We did not know how many viewers it would get, we just felt it was a significant event in the life of this country."

Does ITV not provide this glue too; are the British not unified by Coronation Street, Inspector Morse and Trevor McDonald and the bongs? Yes, says the BBC1 controller, but not to the same extent. The BBC can offer more than "water cooler television".

But Ms Heggessey's ideological battle is not with ITV (which she is beating in the ratings war, much to her pleasure). Back to Mr Murdoch and his senior lieutenants. I draw the conversation round to his newspapers, and their coverage of the Hutton inquiry. Almost every other newspaper group has commented on the fact that The Times, The Sun and the News of The World seem unable to report the BBC's behaviour during the David Kelly affair with anything approaching fairness.

Ms Heggessey is reluctant to be drawn too far down this path. But she says: "The British consumer is extremely discerning. They may buy these newspapers but they know when they are being peddled a line, so they don't necessarily believe everything they read in terms of anti-BBC propaganda. But as everybody says, we are an 800lb gorilla, we can take it."

She pauses to consider what she has just said. "But sometimes you think, should we fight back, should we just sit there and take it?"