Broadcaster Jon Snow has launched a stinging attack on the BBC for scrapping its coverage of the Whitbread book prize, accusing it of trying to confine arts programmes to an elitist "ghetto" on digital TV.
For the first time in four years, Tuesday night's award ceremony will not be televised, after corporation bosses decided they no longer wanted to show it on BBC2. Whitbread declined the offer of an alternative slot on digital channel BBC Knowledge, fearing that millions of viewers would be unable to watch.
Now Mr Snow, who is chairman of this year's award judges, has accused BBC bosses of betraying their public service remit by dropping the prestigious event from their schedules. He said their refusal to show it on terrestrial TV proves they are trying to target serious programmes at only the viewers they deem "refined" enough to appreciate them.
"I can kind of see what the BBC intends to do with digital television," he said. "They will ghettoise things they think are only meant for more refined people.
"It's clear that the BBC thinks the Whitbread is only suitable for a small number of refined people. I think it's a mistake. It's perfectly possible to make this kind of thing accessible to the wider public.
"As a public service broadcaster, the BBC has let the side down."
The Channel 4 News presenter's outspoken comments come just two days before he is due to chair the eight-strong panel that will decide the winner of the overall Whitbread Book of the Year title, worth £25,000. Among those competing are acclaimed children's author Philip Pullman and novelist Patrick Neate, who caused a stir last month by beating Booker Prize winner Ian McEwan onto the shortlist.
Mr Snow said he believed the BBC's decision reflected a worrying trend towards removing more intelligent programmes from mainstream channels. By transferring them onto genre-based stations, the corporation was fostering a culture of "television for the ghetto".
"This is obviously the shape of things to come," he said. "You are going to get more and more specialist channels with specialist programmes. We will all end up as specialist people who don't talk to anyone else."
Describing the Whitbread as an award that has a huge impact on the reading habits of the British public, he said it was not an adequate excuse for the BBC to argue that it already covers literary events sufficiently by televising the Booker Prize.
"They are completely different," Mr Snow said. "Anyone would think there was only one kind of book. The Booker is all about novels, but the Whitbread is a very eclectic competition, covering novels, biographies and children's books."
A Whitbread insider added that the company felt insulted by the BBC's decision, particularly as the 2001 event drew 2m viewers – more than Channel 4's coverage of the Booker. In contrast, the average weekly audience for BBC Knowledge, which changes its name to BBC4 in March, is 1.5m.
Mr Snow's criticisms came as it emerged that, as well as agreeing to televise the Booker for the next two years, BBC2 recently approached its organisers about the possibility of running the award ceremony itself.
Channel bosses suggested transferring the event from its long-time home at London's Guildhall to the Great Court in the British Museum, and changing its "black tie" dinner to a less formal soirée. Sources say the requests were refused in light of the fact that Iceland, the company that owns the Booker rights, is looking for a new sponsor.
A BBC spokeswoman denied that BBC4 would be a "ghetto" for arts programmes. One reason why the corporation had suggested moving the Whitbread to BBC Knowledge was to help encourage more people to switch over to digital TV, a task it has been set by MPs.
But Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell has warned the corporation's director-general, Greg Dyke, that he must not use digital TV as a dumping ground for serious shows. Last month she said she was even prepared to consider fining the corporation for "dumbing down".
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