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Govt backs BBC, C4 tie

January 23, 2009

The UK culture secretary, Andy Burnham, has pledged to rescue Channel 4, backing a deal with BBC Worldwide a merger with Channel Five or “top-slicing” part of the BBC’s licence fee. Burnham, speaking at the Oxford Media Convention, said the role of the BBC must be protected “Let me be clear: the Channel 4 brand is here to stay,” he said, arguing that the “clearest path forward” was to use the broadcaster as a “reservoir” to provide plurality of public service content beyond the BBC. “Public service content would be at its heart but it must be allowed to be innovative and flexible with partnerships.”

He said he favoured a survival package involving investigating partnerships with public bodies first, but did not specifically rule out the possibility of a merger with Five. “While it makes sense to begin here, other options must remain on the table, including exploring the value of any surplus in the licence fee pre- or post-switchover, and top-slicing. We have to be open-minded about the organisational solutions currently proposed, and to any others that may come forward in the next weeks,” he added. “It is obvious to look at the licence fee….Is the public interest best served by plurality or an ever stronger BBC? I believe we can maintain both, if possible, some of the options [in Ofcom’s recommendations] hold that hope…. Should the BBC be a supporting hand under others rather than build itself ever bigger?”

BBC Trust chairman Michael Lyons responded that the “emphasis has to be on sustainable solutions…The BBC is reaching out to partners looking for solutions,” he said. “BBC Worldwide is intrinsically part of the BBC. Its umbilical cord leads directly to the quality of [BBC] programme making and its success must not be put at risk.”

In a reference to the long term safety of license fee money exclusively for the BBC he said “the BBC can’t be asked to do that [strike partnerships] while having its feet kicked from under it. The BBC can’t play an enabling role unless it has stability at the core.”

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