BBC bosses hit out at culture secretary

Ben Bradshaw says BBC chiefs 'wrong-headed'

LONDON -- BBC bosses Tuesday hit out at accusations of "a pattern" of poor leadership from culture and media secretary Ben Bradshaw, warning the government not to engage in "personal criticism" when it came to a debate about the BBC's future.

The argument, exposing a major rift between the government and the BBC, threatened to overshadow the publication of the BBC's annual report and accounts, Tuesday, which showed that the pubcaster's licensing and division BBC Worldwide had exceeded revenue of £1 billion ($1.63 billion) for the first time.

The BBC also said it was scrapping bonuses for its top ten senior executives, amid an argument that its managers are overpaid.

But the pubcaster now finds itself in open warfare with the government ahead of a consultation into plans to redeploy of 3% of the BBC's £3.5 billion ($5.7 billion) annual license fee -- so-called "top-slicing" -- to fund regional news and children's programming made by other producers.

Bradshaw, barely a month into the job as culture minister, told the Financial Times that BBC director general Mark Thompson and BBC Trust chairman Michael Lyons were "wrong-headed" in their refusal to let other organizations share in the license fee, adding that their position left many senior BBC colleagues with "almost a feeling of despair."

"[There] are plenty of people within the BBC that do not feel it is a well-led organization and that is almost for me the most worrying thing," Bradshaw told the newspaper, in an unprecedented public attack on the BBC.

"And they don't feel they are being well-led on this issue. It fits into a pattern. It is not the only issue. There is almost a feeling of despair among a lot of highly respected BBC professionals," Bradshaw added.

But BBC director general Mark Thompson rejected the criticism, saying that while the pubcaster was "full of opinions and lively debate" colleagues fully supported the license fee defense.

"I have to say that on the topic of top-slicing I have seen absolutely no evidence that the BBC is anything other than fully united about what is the mission," Thompson told journalists at a press conference at the BBC's headquarters in central London.

BBC Trust chairman Michael Lyons also rejected the criticism, saying the government's forthcoming consultation was pointless if the minister has already made up his mind.

"It is indeed surprising for the secretary of state who has just started a public consultation exercise [on top-slicing] to give the impression he has already made his mind up so firmly," he told reporters.

"There is room for differences of opinion here. This is a debate we take a different view on. We all don't have to have the same view and we don't have to defend personal criticism."

At a separate press conference, BBC Worldwide chief executive John Smith said revenue from the BBC's commercial operations -- including program sales, TV channel operation, DVD and publishing -- increased 9.5% to £1 billion ($1.63 billion) on operating profit down 12.8% to £103 million ($168 million). Revenue from its U.S. operations, a high-growth target market, fell by 19%.

Smith said the losses were attributed to the collapse of its U.K. DVD partner Woolworths and to fewer co-productions with U.S. partners, as well as cash invested acquiring independent production companies.

Smith said he "made no secret" of the BBC's desire to buy out Virgin Media's stake in the UKTV channels joint venture, and said that "subject to the BBC Trust's approval" Worldwide was prepared to finance a buy out for the channels -- estimated to be worth over £600 million ($977 million) in total.