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A chorus of complaints

Posted by Richard Sunday, June 08, 2008

Following in our footsteps, two articles is separate newspapers are also retailing complaints about the predatory behaviour of the BBC.

The first, from The Sunday Times concerns the purchase by BBC Worldwide - the commercial arm of the BBC - of the travel guide company, Lonely Planet, eliciting a protest from Time Out founder Tony Elliott, who fears that the BBC will provide Lonely Planet with "an inexhaustible fund of factual, technical and editorial information and expertise quite beyond the resources of any privately funded organisation such as Time Out".

In direct competition with Lonely Planet, Time Out publishes travel guides covering 50 cities and destinations. Its website has 1.4 million monthly users, compared with its competitor's four million. "BBC Worldwide, from a lot of people’s point of view, is out of control," says Elliott. "Somebody needs to really have a close look at it and define what it really should be doing."

As an aside, Lonely Planet has a reputation for being a notoriously bad payer. Like many publishers, it relies on the fact that many budding journalists, writers and book editors are willing to work for peanuts in an industry where demand for jobs far outweighs supply.

However, as to the commercial activities of the company, Elliott is not the only one to complain. Penguin, owner of the Rough Guide travel series, is also concerned and, in a mirror of the treatment afforded to us mere mortals when we seek to find out more, it requested further details from the BBC Trust last October, under the Freedom of Information Act, on how the Lonely Planet deal was endorsed and how the company would operate in future. Needless to say, it received no information.

Readers will recall that this "company" is the beneficiary of substantial loans from the EU-backed European Investment Bank (EIB) and, with such assistance, has trebled profits to £111m in three years.

This, though, is only part of the picture. From The Sunday Telegraph, we learn that "media giants" are raising the alarm about the plans of the BBC, ITV and Channel 4 to launch a joint online television service, codenamed Kangaroo.

BSkyB and Virgin Media, who have their own on-demand platforms, have told OFT that the merger "raises concerns" about its potential to stifle competition. Graham McWilliam, group corporate affairs director at BSkyB, said: "The shareholders of Kangaroo must not be allowed to leverage their unique position in television, built on public subsidy, into the on-demand space.” He adds, "We would be particularly concerned if their content was not made available on similar terms to competing services, or if Kangaroo were to benefit from free cross-promotion on public service channels."

This is on top of more general concerns about the plans of the BBC to make live television programmes available online. Using huge amounts of bandwidth, for which the BBC neither pays nor make any contribution, private broadband customers could face higher bills and slower connection speeds as a result.

To add insult to injury, the BBC is insisting that any computer used for viewing these programmes attracts the normal television license fee, if viewers are not already paying a license for their televisions. You can see what is coming: the BBC will be demanding a fee for all broadband-enabled computers, on the basis that they have the capability to receive its programmes.

All of this underlines the predatory and parasitic nature of the BBC, but it is interesting to note how the volume of complaint is turned up when commercial interests are at stake. But, equally important is the way the lavishly-funded BBC website is drowning out independent political discourse.

As we reported in our earlier piece, the BBC is already leveraging its unique position as a public service broadcaster, built on public subsidy, to dominate the news agenda and to channel (and thereby control) comment.

While commercial rivals are becoming increasingly voluble about unfair competition from the publicly-funded BBC, the same amount of attention needs to be given to the way this parasitic organisation is misusing its power and resources in the political sphere.

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