Tim Luckhurst: BBC must realise that competitors are not enemies

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The Independent Online

Sir Michael Lyons's letter to BBC licence fee payers reveals deplorable thinking in a corporation that is determined to have its cake and eat it. Encouraged by a survey that reveals the obvious, i.e. that Britons are proud of the BBC, he presents an argument so self-interested it appears cynical.

He says the BBC has a duty to support rivals, but insists it can do this only by working with them. He is wrong. Britain's commercial media companies serve democracy because they are independent and diverse. Making them depend on the BBC will erode their value as competitors.

So, his hostility to top-slicing the licence fee to help fund independent television news is misguided. But his attitude does not threaten broadcasters alone. He reveals a BBC also complacent about the harm it is inflicting upon newspapers.

They are battling to earn enough online revenue to pay for quality reporting. But the obvious solution, ending the pretence that journalism is free, is stymied by the BBC's vast online presence. Readers resist paying for news when they have already paid for it on the BBC.

Sir Michael has heard pleas for limits on the BBC's power as a market-distorter from sources including James Murdoch and The Guardian but he has not listened.

The BBC's competitors are not its enemies. They admire the corporation as much as most licence payers. But they are not prepared to remain silent while it forces them into oblivion. By competing aggressively in every media sector it has grown to a scale that is threatening, not enabling.

The BBC exists to serve us by enhancing British media. It has performed that role with aplomb for more than 80 years. Now the advent of digital technology has changed the media landscape utterly and it must recognise that it is in danger of vandalising opponents it should cherish.

This letter offers one ray of hope. By instructing the director general to investigate whether the corporation is "the right size and is operating within the right boundaries," Sir Michael leaves open the possibility that it is not. To independent observers the answer is plain. We must hope that Mark Thompson understands the value of diversity better than his boss.

Tim Luckhurst is Professor of Journalism at the University of Kent