EDITORIAL: Why the BBC can't have it both ways

Ever since the BBC began sailing in commercial waters, it has, increasingly, found itself steering a narrow course between the rocks and the hard places.

Ever since the BBC began sailing in commercial waters, it has, increasingly, found itself steering a narrow course between the rocks and the hard places.

It's a tricky piece of navigation. Blown by the winds of change to augment the shortfall in licence fee income by capitalising on its brand, the corporation finds itself smashing against a sea-wall of criticism that it exploits its privileged position to gain unfair advantage.

Now, three major publishers - the National Magazine Company, Emap and IPC media - have decided that enough is enough and are talking to lawyers about what can be done about the BBC using its own airwaves to promote its magazine titles.

Is the BBC guilty as charged? Almost certainly yes. Should it be forced to stop the practice? It's a question that defies a simple answer.

On the face of it, the case for creating a level playing-field seems open and shut. The days when the corporation first interspersed its programmes with a few discreet plugs for the Radio Times are long gone. Today, it's not only publishers that bitch about unfairness. Internet companies too seethe at the amount of on-air promotion given to beeb.com.

All this looks even more unjust given the size of the BBC's top salary bill and its continued harking back to its Reithian origins of trying to be all things to all people.

Nevertheless, Greg Dyke knows better than most that if the BBC is to sustain its position in a changing and fragmenting media environment, it must embrace commercialism fully. How else to find the necessary investment to continue making quality programmes or provide the huge resource necessary to develop digital TV?

It may be that these thorny issues will have to come within the remit of a new single regulatory authority covering both the BBC and ITV, for the BBC can't continue having it both ways. If it is intent on going head to head with ITV for commercial audiences, it must be subject to a similiar system of policing. It can't be right that ITV had to jump through so many hoops in order to move News at Ten while the BBC was able to push back its nightly news by an hour with an OK from its governing board.



Topics