Mellor will back BBC against its Tory critics

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DAVID MELLOR will defend the BBC at the annual conference in October in the face of widespread Tory grassroots demands for it to be privatised.

Mr Mellor's allies said the Secretary of State for National Heritage was determined to protect the BBC and to renew its charter. 'He got the bird from the party conference in Bournemouth for defending the BBC. He isn't going to change now,' a friend said.

But a wide-ranging consultation paper, to be published in October, will help take the heat out of demands from a number of Tory constituency parties for public funding for the BBC to be ended. They have been submitted for a debate on the national heritage at the party conference in October, to which Mr Mellor will reply.

Eight out of ten motions by Tory constituencies for the conference are anti-BBC. Conservatives from Ynys Mon demand action by BBC management to stop alleged left-wing bias while Norwood Tories call for privatisation.

Tory officials were surprised that opposition to the BBC, which is always high at the Tory party conference among the 'blue rinse' set, was not more marked. Tories in South Ribble, Lancashire, and Westminster North submitted pro-BBC motions, calling for the charter to be renewed.

Government officials said the Green Paper on the future of public funding for the BBC will be 'very green'. 'The charter is due for renewal in 1996. As it is a long time-scale, no one is rushing with the answers.

'It will be very wide-ranging. it will look at all the aspects and the arguments of the working of the corporation. It will ask fairly pertinent questions. It will be just the start of the public debate.'

The Green Paper will offer radical options, including ending the BBC's monopoly of revenues from the licence fee by opening the BBC to competition for public funding from commercial broadcasters. It will ask whether some of the funds from the licence fee should be used by the commercial stations to broadcast public-service programmes made by independent companies.

Responsibility for broadcasting has moved from the Home Office to the new national heritage ministry. The Green Paper will propose the creation of a Public Service Broadcasting Council to oversee the broadcasting industry with a duty to support new public- service television and radio programmes.

Mr Mellor, an opera buff, is keen to preserve the broadcasting heritage represented by the BBC. But he has told friends that should not prevent radical changes to the BBC, even if the commitment to publicly funding the BBC through the licence fee is preserved.

Ministers have made it known they want to see the BBC slimmed down, and to promote independent film makers by buying in more public service programmes. They believe more plays, documentaries and news programmes should be produced from outside the BBC.

They see little reason to prevent advertising on commercial-style pop channels such as BBC Radio 1 and Radio 2. They also question public funding for BBC local radio, where it competes with commercial stations by offering pop most of the day. Commercial stations may be offered public money to finance minority interest or community programmes.

They are disinclined to allow advertising on BBC television, but question the zeal of BBC programme heads to compete with the independent channels in the ratings war with soap operas. That view will have been reinforced by BBC's flop TV soap, Eldorado.