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Last Updated: Tuesday, 24 February, 2004, 17:11 GMT
The tale of the curious BBC report

By Torin Douglas
BBC media correspondent

Shelved by the Tories before the public's had a chance to read it? Or a radical blueprint that will set the agenda for the public debate on the future of the BBC? The Elstein Report is a curious beast, commissioned by the Conservative Party but independent of it.

Before it was published, the Tories were already distancing themselves - making clear they wouldn't be bound by its recommendations.

David Elstein
David Elstein headed the team looking at the licence fee
According to the Guardian, the leadership is even preparing to reposition the party as "the friend of the BBC", following the kicking it received from Lord Hutton and the government.

The shadow culture secretary Julie Kirkbride said the report was well-thought through but needed time to digest.

That's not necessarily surprising. The report was commissioned last year by the Tories' old regime before Ian Duncan-Smith was supplanted by Michael Howard.

Even then it was made clear that its role was to kick-start the debate rather than lay down Conservative policy.

The Elstein panel was made up of media experts rather than Conservative supporters, but most were known to be sceptical about the licence fee and they were expected to produce radical proposals.

In that regard, they have more than fulfilled expectations.

Governors abolished

If the recommendations were to go through, the BBC would be in many ways unrecognisable, broken up into different parts, funded in different ways.

The licence fee would be phased out and the board of governors abolished.

BBC TV services would be funded by voluntary subscriptions, topped up by advertising plus some public money handed out by a new Public Broadcasting Authority, in return for public-service programming.

But commercial broadcasters would be competing for those same public funds and the Chancellor of the Exchequer would be deciding how much money should be spent on public-service broadcasting, when measured against the claims of schools, hospitals and defence.

Privatisation

Much of the thinking in the report is very detailed.

From 2007, the licence fee would start to be reduced and would go to the Treasury, not the BBC.

The BBC's commercial arm, BBC Worldwide, and BBC Production would be privatised, and the BBC would be run like Channel 4, by a board made up of executive and non-executive directors, instead of the governors.

The Elstein Report is a vibrant and radical contribution to the debate over the BBC's future

There are strong arguments that change is inevitable, given the government's intention to switch the nation over to digital television and close down the analogue transmitters.

Over half of British homes now have digital television, offering dozens of channels, mostly paid for by subscription.

Once all homes have it, funding the BBC channels through subscription becomes technically possible - though whether that is desirable is another matter.

The report also argues strongly, in the wake of the Hutton Report, that the BBC is poorly governed and that it has diluted its public-service output in a chase for ratings.

But there are large gaps too. The report says BBC Radio should be separated from BBC Television and funded directly by the Public Broadcasting Authority, from taxpayers' money.

That is partly because it is not possible to charge a subscription for radio.

But nothing is said about how this would work. Would Radios One and Two survive?

In the past, the Conservatives have seen these as ripe for privatisation.

There is no word about the local radio stations, or indeed any of the BBC's output in the nations and regions.

And there is hardly any mention of the BBC's online activity.

The assumption is that the BBC's TV and radio divisions would make their own separate decisions about their presence on the web - though public money might be available for public-service internet content.

The Elstein Report is a vibrant and radical contribution to the debate over the BBC's future.

But in the post-Hutton climate, in which public support for the BBC has re-emerged strongly, there is little sign its recommendations will be adopted.


SEE ALSO:
Scrap licence fee, Tories urged
24 Feb 04  |  Entertainment
What's the point of the BBC?
22 Feb 04  |  Panorama
Q&A: The BBC's Charter Review
29 Jan 04  |  Entertainment
Jowell wants public BBC debate
18 Sep 03  |  Entertainment
Colour TV licence fee to rise 5
11 Nov 03  |  Entertainment
Tories propose pay-per-view BBC
20 Jun 02  |  Entertainment


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