Cries & Whispers

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MY EYE is caught by an item of News in Brief. 'Members of the Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee yesterday opposed further cuts to the BBC World Service as 'deeply misguided and short-sighted'.' Good on them] At last, a bit of sense about the BBC in the corridors of power. But read on. 'They appealed to the Foreign Office to ensure the service was protected 'as a powerful reinforcement to Britain's diplomatic and commercial policy'.'

If ever there was a case of the right answer being reached for the wrong reason, this is it. The World Service does not exist to reinforce British policy. It exists to tell people what is going on in the world. The idea that it should be a tool of diplomacy is unappealing enough. The idea that it has anything to do with commerce is sick- making. Commerce, at the end of the day, is the enemy of free speech. It prefers paid-for speech, and only a limited supply of that; it thinks information is something you pass on only when it is in your narrow interest to do so.

These ought to be great times for the World Service. The world is shrinking; more and more people have radios; the BBC is branching, successfully, into global television. But the competition is hotting up. There is CNN, peddling Uncle Sammery to an Americophile globe; and now Rupert Murdoch - emphatically on the side of commerce - has got in on the act by taking control of Star Television, the satellite station based in Hong Kong whose tentacles reach the Gulf. Radio, thankfully, is not so appealing to the moguls; but that is no reason for running it down.

MEANWHILE, the BBC wrestles with Producer Choice, John Birt's bid to turn the corporation into a souk. Recently I asked BBC employees to keep me posted on the effects of PC. This week a senior technician writes: 'In my field it is becoming increasingly difficult to provide the safest equipment. Safety is expensive. Productions hire cheap equipment from outside that is less safe. One day somebody will get injured, and the BBC will be in big trouble. But PC discourages people from taking a view of the corporation's interests as a whole.' Supporters of Birt may feel this is alarmist; but filming can be a dangerous business - 999, the dismal accident-reconstruction series, has already claimed one life. More letters, please. Anonymity guaranteed, and a bottle of champagne for the best of the week.

ON PAGE 14 the career of Robert De Niro is assessed by David Thomson, the film reference-book man. It's lucky we didn't ask his rivals at Halliwell's. This is their entry on De Niro in the new Filmgoers' Companion (HarperCollins, pounds 14.99), in full: 'Leading American actor of the 70s, usually in downbeat roles and somewhat handicapped by possessing the kind of face you don't remember.'