Ms Jowell's strange flirtation with cultural protectionism

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Of all the BBC's new digital channels, it is BBC Three that has proved the most troublesome. For, unlike BBC News 24, BBC Four or BBC Choice (which it replaces), it is the one that is both in direct competition with commercial broadcasters and the furthest removed from the BBC's traditional brief to educate, inform and entertain, being aimed at younger viewers and solely concerned with the last of that Reithian trilogy.

Such concerns seemed to be shared by the Culture Secretary, Tessa Jowell. A year ago, when the plan for the other BBC channels was approved, her department made little secret of its view that BBC Three had little connection with public-service broadcasting. Since then we have seen the collapse of ITV Digital and its rescue by a BBC-BSkyB-Crown consortium, The reborn digital terrestrial service, Freeview, is due to begin transmission by the end of next month.

The Government's dream of a digitised Britain was thus saved, for the moment at least. Now we find that Ms Jowell has relented in her opposition to BBC Three and given it the green light, despite the apparent undue reliance on the debatable talents of Johnny Vaughan. She even said that she expected the new channel to be a "powerhouse for new talent". So, trebles all round at Television Centre?

Not quite. For in giving the BBC's director general, Greg Dyke, his full "family" of channels, she has tied some conditions to the deal. Most are sensible, although often subjective. The oddest is the requirement that 90 per cent of programme hours for the service are made in the European Union or European Economic Area.

This is cultural protectionism at its worst. We would love to see a greater European perspective on our television screens. But this edict defies logic, raising the possibility of second-rate programming to satisfy politically inspired quotas. It also carries the implication that shows made in Australia or the United States are necessarily inferior to those produced in Belgium or Norway. That might sometimes be true, but it is not for 90 per cent of the time. It may lead to some novel programming. BBC Three will make for interesting viewing, if only for that reason.

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