Birt warns of digital TV danger

BBC boss says that services he spent millions to create may split the nation

Links, reports and background: more on the future of the BBC

Sir John Birt, the outgoing director general of the BBC, will tonight warn of the dangers to British society, culture and politics posed by the digital revolution which he has spent millions of pounds of public money championing.

Sir John, who spearheaded the BBC's digital strategy, diverting millions of pounds of licence fee revenue into new technology and digital channels, will argue that although it could bring a "digitopia", it risks causing social division between the information haves and have-nots.

His cautionary stance, at a lecture to be given tonight to senior opinion formers from politics, the media and the arts, will astound those who have argued against rushing into digital broadcasting.

Sir John, a pioneer of the new technology, will warn that if the government does not act quickly, the future of broadcasting will cause irreparable damage to society.

In his last major speech as director general, entitled The Prize and The Price, Sir John is expected to warn the audience that now is the critical time to act to preserve the future of broadcasting.

He will detail the dangers to social cohesion and the national culture which could result from being swamped by international, mainly American, influences.

He will suggest that easy access to deregulated sensationalist and vulgar material will degrade the British national culture.

He is expected to say that collective experience of television watching - from events such as the funeral of Princess Diana and big sporting occasions to viewing a popular sitcom - has characterised the 20th century.

He will warn that the consequence of digital may mean a 21st century where the world is made up of individual, rather than collective experiences.

Sir John will argue that the future threatens to be a world of pay-TV where viewers will have to buy not only sport or movies but also premium drama or successful comedies. This, he feels, would lead to the creation of a group of viewers who are "information poor".

He will emphasise that the BBC's role is to counterbalance this digital age - which it can only do with proper funding.

Sir John, who retires in April 2000 to be replaced by Greg Dyke, is expected to call on the government to safeguard the BBC as a "counterbalance" or a civilising force for the future and ensure that the corporation's income grows in proportion to that of the nation. He will also acknowledge that many of the reforms he implemented at the BBC caused bitterness, pain and controversy but will deny that they have weakened the corporation's creativity.

Although the BBC is now more confined financially and required to be more accountable, he will claim that licence payers get better value for money now than at any point in the BBC's history. He is also expected to stress that the BBC must now invest in new technology, retraining of staff and in new offices to replace the "dingy, cramped mid-20th century warrens" it currently occupies.

Sir John's warning comes as the economist Gavyn Davies prepares to publish his report into the licence fee and the possible ways of funding the corporation in the future.

Mr Davies, who has previously advocated a digital licence fee whereby subscribers to digital services would pay an extra supplement on top of the normal cost, is expected to submit his report for debate later this summer.

Sir John is not expected to comment on the BBC's views on the report.

A BBC source said last night: "This lecture is John Birt's last chance to say what he really thinks about these issues which he cares passionately about.

"He sees it as an opportunity to warn that the BBC can't be taken for granted and that the time for action is now."


Janine Gibson, Media Correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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