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BBC accused of anti-competitive practice online

ITN is gunning for the BBC, arguing it is stepping outside its remit by giving away news
Written by Wendy McAuliffe, Contributor

Troubled news organisation ITN has accused the BBC of being anti-competitive in its practice of giving online news services to mobile phone operators and Internet portals free of charge.

ITV is preparing a report for the Office of Fair Trading, which could result in the BBC governors being brought to court. According to a spokesman, the OFT "hasn't yet received an official complaint relating to the BBC's abuse of its market position", but he confirms that this is a serious allegation, and will "definitely lead to an investigation".

ITN's own spokesman says the organisation has already held initial discussions with the OFT, and the report is likely to be submitted before the end of the month.

It "focuses on a potential abuse of a dominant market position, and a consequent loss of revenue", according to the spokesman. "The ITN complaint goes beyond mobile telephony."

ITN is also considering talks with the EC's competition regulators because the BBC have been "breaking their own fair trading guidelines by offering BBC World News for free in America which is a potential abuse of predatory pricing", according to the ITV spokesman.

ITV's charges follow recent controversy surrounding the BBC's reluctance to define its role within the digital age. After a £3 rise in TV licenses in February to fund the BBC's digital services, the licence fee is now being used to generate content for bbc.co.uk and its news channel BBC News 24 -- which is then being offered to companies such as Cellnet, Vodafone and Yahoo! for free.

"The BBC needs to define more clearly the extent to which state subsidies are validly used when it is competing head on with commercial operations who are duplicating their services" says Julian Eccles, director of corporate communications at British Sky Broadcasting (BSkyB).

The BBC claims its free news is part of its WAP and Broadcast trials, and that its provision of mainstream content to sites such as Yahoo! falls within its public services distribution. The BBC remit is contained within a report written in October 1998, which remains unpublished. ITN conceded that it cannot be sure be sure if the BBC is breaking the rules until that report is in the public domain.

The government is currently working with the broadcasting industry on a communications white paper that will be published later this year. It will address whether or not the BBC should be brought under a system of independent regulation.

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