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Thursday, March 19, 1998 Published at 16:45 GMT

UK: Politics

BBC 'to remain public service broadcaster'

John Birt: commerical partners "beat a path" to BBC's door

The Director General of the BBC, John Birt, has faced questions from MPs over the future direction of the corporation.

But answering claims that the BBC wanted to turn into a new commerical organisation, Mr Birt pledged that the corporation would remain a British broadcaster - but with a global mission.

[ image: BBC America: new cable channel]
BBC America: new cable channel
The hearing came after the BBC launched BBC America, a commercial cable channel in partnership with Discovery Communications.

Mr Birt and Sir Christopher Bland, the BBC's Chairman, told the House of Commons Culture Select Committee that the BBC's goal was to become one of, if not the leading, global broadcaster over the next decade as digital television and online services expand.

John Birt said the BBC was positioned to provide quality public service broadcasting and commercial partnerships.

"What we have found is that the world beats a path to our door and wants joint ventures with us," he said.

"I think it is the appropriate way for us to expand and it offers us the prospect of becoming the world's leading broadcaster on television and online over 10 years."

[ image: Gerald Kaufman: questioned role of the BBC]
Gerald Kaufman: questioned role of the BBC
But BBC critics question whether a publicly-funded body should be involved in commercial ventures in such a competitive market.

The BBC's £1.9bn licence fee revenue is ring-fenced from commercial ventures and the corporation plans to triple the £73.5m profits of its commercial arm within 10 years.

The committee chairman, Gerald Kaufman, said the BBC was trying to be both a public service broadcaster and a commercial company at the same time.

He said that one of the BBC's commercial partners had described the protection offered to licence payer's money as a "charade".

But Sir Christopher said he believed the licence fee was still the best way of funding the BBC. Commercial activities would always be secondary to that role, he said.

The Chairman of the ITV Association, Leslie Hill, told the committee that the BBC must not enter into "unfair competition" in the commercial field.

"They have some advantages that I think need to be dealt with," he said.

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