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Last Updated: Tuesday, 6 July, 2004, 08:35 GMT 09:35 UK
Graf's report pleases almost all
Torin Douglas
By Torin Douglas
BBC media correspondent

BBC Soap
Pure Soap is one of the sites that will close following the report
Amazingly, Philip Graf seems to have pleased everyone with his report into the BBC's online services - which has led to the corporation being given four months to redefine its remit for them.

Tessa Jowell, the Culture Secretary, called it "authoritative and constructive". The BBC board of governors said it was "insightful" and contained "sensible recommendations".

He even managed to satisfy BBC Online's commercial rivals, who've been complaining for years that the publicly-funded service was damaging their businesses.

Hugo Drayton, the chairman of the British Internet Publishers Alliance, said: "This is long overdue. We've been banging on the doors of the BBC governors and the government for six years and at last we've been listened to.

"I'm appalled it has taken so long but it's great that the BBC have climbed down and agreed to close some of their sites."

Public affection

In fact, as the BBC points out, Mr Graf has not concluded that its online activities have adversely affected the UK internet market.

He decided the theory "could be neither proved or disproved", though there were "indications" that the presence of BBC Online might deter investment by commercial operators.

He also said there was clearly great public affection for BBC Online and it provided high-quality material in a user-friendly manner.

But he did call for changes to ensure the BBC focused more clearly on its public-service content, saying some of its sites were not sufficiently distinctive from the commercial alternatives or were inadequately associated with public purposes.

I hope they're not allowed to get away with just these pre-planned sops
Hugo Drayton, British Internet Publishers Alliance

Within 90 minutes of the report's publication, the BBC's director of new media Ashley Highfield had announced that five of its sites or portals were to be closed.

They are: Fantasy Football; the central What's On events listings; the Surfing portal; the Games portal; and Pure Soap, which describes its output as "news, gossip, plots and quizzes about all the soaps, updated daily, plus weekly guest chat".

"About time too," said Mr Drayton. "But I hope they're not allowed to get away with just these pre-planned sops, and are made to close some of their other sites too."

Broadband take-up

Mr Highfield acknowledged that more sites could close, once the BBC had analysed the Graf Review in detail. He said the government had originally wanted the BBC to experiment in the new medium and now the market had matured it was time for the remit to be tightened.

But he also welcomed the report, saying it recognised the public's wide admiration for the service, its high quality and creativity, and its potential role in promoting broadband take-up.

Michael Grade
Michael Grade is the chairman of the BBC's governors

Significantly, he and the board of governors responded to the report separately - though they are evidently singing from the same hymn sheet.

Since the arrival of the new BBC director-general Mark Thompson last week, and the publication of the BBC's charter review document, it's been made clear that the BBC governors will be distancing themselves from the management, to hold them more publicly to account.

Greater expertise

This chimes in with the Graf report, which recommends that the governors need greater expertise in new media and competition law. It also says they should have access to independent analytical advice.

The Board of Governors agree - they said in a statement: "Indeed, in the BBC's recently published contribution to the Charter Review debate, the Board announced it will create a new Governance Unit, working separately from the BBC, to provide independent advice across all the BBC's services."

In that document, the Board also announced that the governors would issue licences for each of the BBC's services, and measure them against a Public Value Test - proposals again echoed in the Graf report.

Fantasy Football site
Fantasy Football was deemed too similar to other commercial sites

The closure of the BBC websites was previewed last week by Mr Thompson and the sites chosen were identified by a pilot scheme, with BBC Online acting as a guinea pig for the Public Value Test.

Is this an example of refreshingly joined-up thinking? Or a slightly too cosy relationship between Mr Graf, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, and the BBC itself?

Mr Drayton has complained that the BBC got an advance copy of the Graf Report, ten days before its critics. "It's absolutely disgraceful that they should have more time to prepare their reply."

But if it has helped produce a reply that the critics welcome, should he really be worrying?


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