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Tuesday, July 6, 1999 Published at 18:32 GMT 19:32 UK


Birt warns of digital threat

Sir John Birt: Supporter of digital services

The digital age could have a serious effect on the UK's national culture, BBC Director General Sir John Birt has warned.

Sir John Birt: "Increasingly we are going to see people paying for their media"
Sir John is known for being a strong supporter of the digital revolution in global communication. He has argued that specialist TV channels and interactive online services can provide a wider choice of information and entertainment.

But his New Statesman lecture on Tuesday conveyed his misgivings. Unless the BBC is properly funded in the next century, the undoubted benefits of digital technology could be outweighed by the dangers, he said.

Without a strong BBC, the UK's national culture would be threatened by the globalisation of the media.

'Vulgar and the sensationalist'

"Our culture may be degraded by the instant availability in new media of the raucous, the vulgar and the sensationalist," he said.

[ image: The BBC aims to create a dynamic range of digital TV channels]
The BBC aims to create a dynamic range of digital TV channels
"There is a risk to our national culture. We have already seen in this century the emergence of a global culture which is essentially American - the baseball cap, jeans, trainers and Pepsi are all ubiquitous.

"The coming globalisation of media - when anything will be available from anywhere - may intensify this trend and undermine the uniqueness of national cultures."

Social division could be created when people have to pay for the most popular events or the most valuable information, he argued.

'Knowledge underclass'

Sir John, who will be replaced by Greg Dyke next year, warned that as viewers pay for more and more programmes a "knowledge underclass" will emerge.

"We may see the emergence of an information-rich and an information-poor - an underprivileged knowledge underclass, denied access to the quality of information, insight and entertainment enjoyed by the richer members of the community," he said.

He has said that as multi-channel digital television prepares to change viewing habits, the UK Government should ensure that public service broadcasting remains available to everyone.

"At the heart of the public broadcasting tradition is universality - reaching out to every household in the land - the poor and the prosperous - offering enriching experience and information which extends understanding," he said.

"Public service broadcasters seek not only to delight, but to give individuals the knowledge they need to live fuller, more satisfying lives."

Better regulation

He called for the government to draw up regulations to make sure gateway providers do not become too powerful.

"Now is the time to act and to apply with rigour clear regulatory principles for the digital age."

The BBC operates a range of digital services - including digital versions of BBC One and BBC Two, as well as BBC Choice, BBC Parliament, BBC Knowledge and BBC News 24.

It has capped digital spending at 10% of its income, but there have been arguments for a digital levy on the licence fee. A panel is currently preparing a report on BBC funding

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