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Last Updated: Thursday, 18 September, 2003, 17:36 GMT 18:36 UK
BBC under media moguls' scrutiny

By Torin Douglas
BBC media correspondent

The future of the BBC is about to come under the microscope - and not because of the Hutton Inquiry.

Leading broadcasting executives are descending on Cambridge for the Royal Television Society Convention.

Among the items on the agenda will be whether the BBC has become too powerful and should be more tightly regulated.

Tessa Jowell
Tessa Jowell is making the opening speech
The BBC's royal charter - in effect its licence to broadcast - expires at the end of 2006 and already there's a fierce debate over the terms under which it should be renewed.

The chances of it not being renewed at all, or the licence fee being abolished, are infinitesimal, though when Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell acknowledged this in an interview she was accused - unfairly - of killing the debate before it had begun.

In practice, there are plenty of important issues still to argue about, such as what services the BBC should provide, how big it should be, the level of the licence fee, and whether or not it should continue to be regulated by its board of governors, or come under the new communications regulator Ofcom.

Ms Jowell has also had to deny newspaper reports that the outcome would be influenced by the Hutton Inquiry in the wake of the government's row with the BBC over its reporting of the Iraq dossier.

The deputy leader of the House of Lords, Liberal Democrat Lord McNally warned her: "On no account must the review of the BBC charter be used as pay-back time for politicians with resentments against the BBC or pay-off time for vested commercial interests."

Greg Dyke
Greg Dyke is the convention's chairman
She¿s said the government will naturally consider any relevant recommendations from Lord Hutton, but beyond that the two processes are entirely separate.

The formal review of the BBC Charter won't begin for some months.

In the New Year, Ms Jowell is expected to set up a panel of experts who will oversee the consultation process.

In parallel, the new regulator Ofcom will begin a study of the whole of public service broadcasting, which will feed into the government's charter review.

But already the gloves are off.

Anne Robinson chairing The Weakest Link
BSkyB's Tony Ball has said the BBC should sell some of its popular shows
At last month¿s Edinburgh International Television Festival, the chief executive of BSkyB, Tony Ball, called for much stricter curbs on how the BBC spent licence-payers' money.

He said it should not be allowed to buy imported series series and films, such as The X-Files and Harry Potter and The Philosopher's Stone, since commercial channels would happily show these.

He even suggested the BBC should be made to sell some of its most popular programmes, like The Weakest Link or Holby City, to commercial rivals.

Meanwhile the Conservatives' culture spokesman John Whittingdale has set up his own panel to review the future funding of the BBC, under the chairmanship of the former Channel 5 chief executive David Elstein.

Mr Whittingdale said he had a genuinely open mind but added: "I think it's very difficult to defend the licence fee at its current level. There needs to be a wide-ranging look at what the BBC is for and how we pay for it."

He particularly questions the BBC's move into new digital channels and the internet.

"I am not persuaded that there is necessarily a case for a public service website," he said. "The BBC site is fantastic but that's because it's had a lot of money thrown at it."

Mr Elstein has long argued that the licence fee should eventually be replaced by subscription as the means of funding the BBC, but it is widely accepted that that could only happen once every home had digital television.

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