by Agence France-Presse –
LONDON (February 15, 2004) — AFP) – The government is considering a plan to break up the BBC and remove its independent status in the wake of a bitter row with the state-funded broadcaster over the Iraq (news – web sites) war, a report said.
Government papers detailing possible changes to the BBC’s structure proposed breaking it into separate regional entities for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, The Sunday Times said.
The documents, which the newspaper said had been drawn up by “senior civil servants”, also suggested that the job of ensuring the BBC’s impartiality could be taken away from the corporation’s board of governors.
The BBC, which is independently run despite being financed by public money through a compulsory television licence, is currently facing perhaps the worst breakdown in relations with the government in its 82-year history.
The dispute came after a BBC radio report alleged in May last year that Prime Minister Tony Blair’s government deliberately exaggerated the threat posed by Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction in a pre-war dossier.
Government weapons expert David Kelly was later identified as the anonymous source of the charge. Kelly killed himself soon afterwards.
An inquiry into Kelly’s death, led by judge Lord Brian Hutton, concluded last month that the BBC’s story had been “unfounded”, a verdict which forced the corporation to apologise, with the corporation’s chairman and director general resigning.
According to The Sunday Times, the new plans for the BBC will bring accusations that “the government is gearing up to exploit the fall-out from the Hutton inquiry”.
Plans being considered include giving a government media watchdog greater control over the BBC’s output, closing BBC outlets which are not considered “public service” and even forcing the corporation to share some of its licence fee revenue with other broadcasters.
Such a move would most likely prompt public concern, given that the BBC is still generally revered in Britain for being impartial and accurate.
Opinion polls after the Hutton inquiry was published showed that many people considered its verdict a “whitewash”, and that they trusted the BBC far more than they did Blair and his ministers.