BBC bosses bring fight into public domain

Respond to James Murdoch's critical MacTaggart lecture

LONDON -- BBC bosses are not taking James Murdoch's criticism of the organization lying down. In an unprecedented dual strike against attacks from the News Corp. Europe and Asia chairman and others, BBC director general Mark Thompson and BBC Trust chairman Michael Lyons have taken the fight over the future of the license fee into the public domain.

In an email to all BBC staff that was also released by the BBC on Wednesday, director general Thompson said Murdoch's highly critical MacTaggart lecture last month was "desperately out-of-touch" with audience sentiment about the BBC, citing independent research over the weekend that said 80% of viewers were "very proud" of the pubcaster.

"We've seen a pretty relentless onslaught from the press over the summer, culminating in James Murdoch's MacTaggart lecture," Thompson wrote to staff. "The most important thing to say about that lecture and about many of the recent attacks on the BBC is that they are desperately out of touch with what the audience themselves are telling us," he said.

Thompson also claimed that the public supported the BBC's opposition to so-called "top-slicing," under which the pubcaster would be ordered to share its $5.8 billion a year license fee income with other broadcasters.

In an open letter to all BBC viewers, BBC Trust chairman Lyons said the BBC's own research showed that more than half of viewers backed a rebate on the license fee, compared with just 6% who favored top-slicing to support commercial news organizations.

"That reinforces our concern about any attempt to use the license fee to subsidize commercial operators, as proposed by the Government in its Digital Britain report," said Lyons, warning that that such top-slicing would "weaken the BBC, threaten its independence and reduce accountability to license fee payers."

Lyons said the BBC management would carry out a comprehensive review of the BBC's key operations and evaluate how it could best support the broadcasting industry and wider economy, as well as its role in a digital world. News Corp.'s James Murdoch delivered a scathing attack on the BBC as the keynote of the Edinburgh Television Festival, calling for its called expansionist ambitions to be curtailed and said its free online news was an attempt to "throttle" the commercial sector.

"The corporation (BBC) is incapable of distinguishing between what is good for it, and what is good for the country," Murdoch told an audience of executives.

"Funded by a hypothecated tax, the BBC feels empowered to offer something for everyone, even in areas well served by the market. The scope of its activities and ambitions is chilling."