MEDIA: Can the old World Service survive this BBC merger?

The other day I found myself at Bush House, home of the BBC World Service, and came face to face with the bunches of flowers pinned to its gates. As a mute protest by staff this is a master stroke, reaching across all cultures.

The other day I found myself at Bush House, home of the BBC World

Service, and came face to face with the bunches of flowers pinned to its

gates. As a mute protest by staff this is a master stroke, reaching

across all cultures.



But what should we make of the external opposition to John Birt’s plans

to integrate it with the rest of the BBC which has united the

establishment in fury? It reminds me of the public rebellion which led

to the rout over BBC plans to annexe Radio 4’s long wave frequency for

rolling news. There are also plenty of media lawyers scouring the text

of the BBC’s new Charter and agreement - which forces it to consult

before materially changing a service - to see if a legal challenge can

be mounted.



There is no doubt that the Birt/Bland master-plan will, if allowed to go

through, demolish the traditional independence of the World Service.

Secure in its Aldwych fortress, it has maintained a semi-detached

existence from the domestic Corporation. This has run counter to the

centralising tendencies of Birt’s BBC and has long been a source of

irritation. Although his structural reorganisation is being marketed

under the reformist banner of preparing the Corporation for the multi-

channel digital age, it also has the effect of concentrating power yet

further in a tiny executive committee. This should make the BBC easier

to manoeuvre in the time ahead but it does mean the World Service loses

status.



The next question is whether there are benefits to be reaped from a

closer integration with the mainstream BBC. It is uncertain. Those of us

who have contributed to World Service programmes know how economically

they are put together: the fact is that costs are 28 per cent below

comparable domestic network radio. Under the merger there will be one

news gathering centre, at Television Centre, serving all BBC outlets. It

seems strange there is so much emphasis on a physical merger, when

computerisation makes networking so simple.



There is also sense in the argument that World Service programmes

require experienced specialists. The style of writing, the choice of

topics is driven by a set of values neccessarily different from

domestic services. The BBC ought to consider recent experiments in

running seven-day operations for daily and Sunday newspapers by cost-

conscious managements. These have all been abandoned because they don’t

work. I fear it will prove so for the World Service. The need for

specialised teams must go further than the BBC’s plan to set up a top

layer of World Service commissioning editors who will order programmes

from external departments.



The final worry is that it will be genuinely hard to gauge the impact of

the changes. Canvassing audiences in a remote area of, say, Albania, is

difficult. By the time we know the figures, real damage may well have

been done.



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