The BBC has never hesitated to use its tax-funded clout to take on private ventures

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Written by Dr Madsen Pirie

Ben Bradshaw, the Culture Secretary, has stepped into a simmering row about the BBC's expansion policy. He says it is "at the limits of reasonable expansion." Set up originally by six private companies to broadcast radio programmes, and nationalised in 1927, the BBC has been a public body ever since. Although it attracted praise for the quality of its commercial-free broadcasting, the BBC has tried throughout its history to monopolise broadcasting by squeezing out competition.

It opposed the introduction of ITV in 1955 and of commercial radio subsequently, following the success of the offshore pirate stations. The BBC has never hesitated to use its publicly-funded clout to compete with private ventures dependent on commercial finance. Local radio stations, set up to fill a gap in the market, soon found themselves in competition with BBC versions, financed out of the licence fee, which cut into their audience and the commercial finance it brought.

The BBC looks at what others are doing commercially, and copies them, trying to maintain its dominant position by undercutting commercial operations with its "free" licence-payer-funded alternatives. The BBC has no need to finance such operations by market share because it has the compulsory licence fee behind it. Everyone who uses a television has to pay it, and bullying big brother tactics and intimidating commercials ensure that most of them do.

Part of the problem is that with media diversification in the internet age, the BBC still wants to do everything. It fears its dominance will be undermined by new technology unless it keeps a finger in every pie. This is very evident in its news services. Seeing the news audience move from broadcast news to internet coverage, the BBC has responded with "free" internet news to compete with and undercut those who need a market share and commercial backing to sustain their own news output.

In response to a proposal to award a small part of the licence fee to local news alternatives, Sir Michael Lyons, Chairman of the BBC Trust, has urged a cut in the licence fee rather than see any of it go to help competitors. Mr Bradshaw's intervention is timely. Just occasionally, in the way the BBC treats its prima donna celebrities, do people glimpse how their licence fees are splashed around. Less visible is the ruthless way they are used to squeeze out commercial media competitors.

The BBC is rightly praised for some of its output, but it has traded on that goodwill to distort the media market to maintain its own dominance. It is time that its use of licence fees was subjected to close and independent scrutiny, and that alternative funding models were explored.

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