BBC funding changes ruled out by Brooke: TV licence fee may be index-linked but advertising dismissed

PETER BROOKE is ready to rule out any fundamental changes in the way that the BBC is funded.

The Secretary of State for National Heritage has signalled privately that he is against the idea of making the BBC compete for funds for public service broadcasting with commercial television companies, although a White Paper on the future of the BBC is still in embryo.

John Major's decision to keep Mr Brooke as Secretary of State for National Heritage indicated that the Prime Minister was not preparing any radical changes which could threaten the BBC's broadcasting base.

That was confirmed by Mr Brooke at a private meeting with MPs and senior executives of the BBC at Westminster. He said the BBC had a world-wide reputation for broadcasting, which he did not intend to allow to be undermined.

He has told friends: 'I don't want to see that broadcasting base destroyed the way that the British motorcycle industry was.'

Mr Brooke spent little more than a month studying the responses to the other ideas raised in the Green Paper, and no final decisions have been taken. The Commons select committee chaired by Gerald Kaufman has just opened its own inquiry into the issue.

Mr Brooke favours retaining the licence fee as the best means of raising the money for the BBC and it may be index-linked. He does not want to see BBC TV and quality radio broadcasting semi-privatised, although he is not ruling out proposals for the BBC to buy in more privately-produced programmes and the BBC popular radio channels 1 and 2 and local stations could be opened to advertising.

A Public Service Broadcasting Council may be set up to regulate the BBC, but he is against giving it wider powers to distribute funds to the independent networks.

Ministers believe that the BBC has responded to the Green Paper, which described it as 'bureaucratic' and heavily overstaffed. John Birt, the director-general, is in the process of shaking up programming, staff are being cut, and more programmes are being 'bought in' from the private sector, as the discussion document recommended. They are satisfied that major surgery at the BBC may now be avoided. His rejection of radical changes will come as a relief to the BBC and Tory MPs who feared the threat to privatise public service broadcasting - in the face of a sustained BBC campaign for the licence fee - could be a big vote loser in the run-up to the election.

Labour MPs warned against the idea when it was floated with the publication of the broadcasting Green Paper in November last year, although Melvyn Bragg, the broadcaster and a Labour supporter, was one of its main proponents.

The proposal would have allowed public service funding for quality programmes on independent channels, such as the South Bank Show programme presented by Mr Bragg, and would have broken the BBC monopoly for the first time.

It would force the BBC to seek fresh funding from advertising. Some right-wing Tory MPs would support a challenge to the BBC, which they are convinced is still dominated by left- wing bias. But Mr Brooke, 59, a traditional Tory, has made it clear privately he has no intention of allowing advertising to supplement the two BBC TV channels.