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Last Updated: Wednesday, 27 August, 2003, 17:35 GMT 18:35 UK
Tory questions BBC digital role
John Whittingdale MP
Whittingdale: Why should taxpayers finance BBC's digital services?

The BBC's digital services are arguably failing to live up to their public service remit, the Conservative shadow culture secretary has said.

John Whittingdale said new technologies and multiplying digital services - both in broadcasting and online - called for "a really fundamental debate about what the BBC is there to do".

But in response to earlier reports, Mr Whittingdale insisted he was "not saying the BBC website should be closed down, but needs to be examined against criteria in exactly the same way as every other part of the BBC".

The Department of Culture, Media and Sport is carrying out a review of the BBC's online services and earlier this week, DCMS Secretary Tessa Jowell announced former newspaper executive Philip Graf will head it.

The Tories have commissioned their own review of the BBC, headed by the former head of Channel 5 David Elstein, which is set to report back at the end of the year.


Mr Whittingdale said he was also talking to "a huge variety of people - independent producers, advertisers, commercial broadcasters, viewers' representatives - ... many of whom have entirely legitimate complaints".

If the BBC's digital services are replicating what is already available commercially, then I don't see that as something which the taxpayer or licence-fee payer should be financing
John Whittingdale MP

Speaking to BBC News Online, he said he believed the corporation's charter - up for renewal in 2006 - should not be "rubberstamped... when there are so many other broadcasters out there supplying programming through the marketplace".

He said his primary concern was that the BBC competes with other information services despite a 2.7bn subsidisation by the licence-fee payer, which he argued created a distortion of the marketplace.

"If the BBC's digital services are replicating what is already available commercially, then I don't see that as something which the taxpayer or licence-fee payer should be financing."

The BBCi website attracts Britain's fourth largest audience - after Google, Yahoo! and MSN - and a recent Mori poll found that two million new internet users had been attracted online by the BBC.


A spokesman for the corporation said bbc.co.uk is a "home on the web" for 10m people.

"They value it as a place where they can come together to explore and share common interests for free.

"We look forward to all parties being persuaded by the distinctiveness and quality of our content through the framework of the government review of our online services."

Mr Whittingdale rejected the suggestion he had called outright for the closure of some BBC digital outlets.

"It is far too premature to say the Tories would close down anything. We have not reached conclusions. We are anxious that this debate takes place. And we are at the beginning of it, not the end."

On the issue of self-regulation by the BBC, Mr Whittingdale was less circumspect.

"The BBC should come fully under Ofcom. It is absurd to create a broadcasting regulator and then have the biggest and most powerful broadcasting organisation outside its remit."

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