When do we get a say over BBC Worldwide?

There’s a big privatisation about to happen that you might not know about.

There’s a big privatisation about to happen that you might not know about

In a move that was unearthed yesterday, BBC America is, according to Bloomberg, about to sell itself to AMC, the Breaking Bad broadcaster, handing over ‘about’ 50 per cent in return for access to AMC networks.

But here’s where it gets complicated. BBC America is currently owned wholly by BBC Worldwide, a for-profit company. But BBC Worldwide is itself owned wholly by the BBC – obviously a public sector organisation.

It makes sense for BBC Worldwide to be a separate organisation. After all, the British public can’t be expected to fund an equivalent ad-free public service broadcaster in nearly every country of the world.

But being owned by the British public (albeit at arms-length), it would be reasonable to expect that the public get some say over what happens. Particularly when ‘BBC Worldwide exists to support the BBC public service mission and to maximise profits on its behalf’, operates under the BBC’s Charter, Agreement and ethics, and aims to help keep the Licence Fee as low as possible. All this according to its own website.

So when a significant division of a body that aims, at core, to serve the British public, is half-privatised, why is there no consultation?

The ramifications, after all, could be significant. Sell-offs can often emerge in the long-term as being incredibly short-sighted. They can lead to a lack of independence, accountability and public-service ethos. AMC does not have the interests of the BBC at heart. BBC Worldwide, ostensibly, does. So this matters.

If this acquisition by AMC eventually results in a loss for BBC America, it will result in a loss for the BBC as a whole – that is, British broadcasting (and therefore UK viewers) will notably lose out. There may be cuts, or there may be a license fee hike. This alone warrants discussion with BBC Worldwide’s core stakeholders – the British public.

This isn’t a lone case, either. BBC Worldwide has in recent years been selling off significant chunks of its own operations to private companies.

In 2005, the BBC sold Eve magazine to Haymarket. Then, in 2006, Random House bought out BBC Books. So the entire publishing division of our national broadcaster became privately owned.

Acquisitions matter, too. In 2007, the Beeb bought 75 per cent of Lonely Planet, the tourism guide, for £130m. Big money. Just six years later, they sold it for £51m at an astonishing £80m loss. Taxpayers lost out.

Then, in 2011, BBC Worldwide sold all its non-BBC branded magazines to Exponent, a private equity firm. It also handed over the licenses to run all the BBC branded mags, too, effectively sub-contracting the work, and moved all its magazine staff over to the private company. At the same time, the broadcaster offloaded its subscription fulfilment service.

What we have therefore is a history of semi-secret quasi-privatisations, none of which have public approval except for that of the BBC Trust. In the case of the Lonely Planet sale, it resulted in a massive bill for the taxpayer (indirectly, through losses).

It’s time for some accountability in BBC Worldwide. It may be a company, but it’s one that’s owned by all of us and it says it exists for all of us. Perhaps then, we should get a say when our assets are flogged off.

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