Rob Brown

`I don't know of a single person in BBC news who is prepared to compromise on a fundamental adherence to the principle of journalism first, business afterwards' - Fergal Keane
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If there is any hope, it rests with the proles. At least, that's what kept the central character of 1984, Winston Smith, going for a while, in his battle against Big Brother. But those opposed to Birtism in the BBC - all too easy to portray as a true Orwellian nightmare - are now suddenly being sustained by a rather different faith. Hope for them lies with the stars.

Something remarkable happened at the Birtist Broadcasting Corporation last week. The corporation was plunged into crisis - or what the press could all too easily portray as a crisis - when a number of its most prominent news and current affairs presenters, including Anna Ford, John Humphrys and James Naughtie, rose up in open rebellion again plans to merge the production of the programmes they front. Editors of flagship radio and TV news and current affairs programmes, including Newsnight and Today, also threatened to resign and refused to apply for any of the five "executive editor" posts planned under the new regime.

But it was the celebrities who pushed this story on to the front page and presented the BBC mandarins with what was indisputably a PR disaster.

We all live, of course, in a celebrity-driven world. That, for me, was the most striking and saddest lesson of Diana, Princess of Wales's tragically brief life. Land-mines and the stigmatisation of leprosy and Aids sufferers, we can all agree, are abominations, but they dominated the headlines only when the world's most photogenic woman chose to highlight them.

The trouble is that celebrities don't rock the system very often. Last week was the first time that the "stars" inside the corporation's news and current affairs division became distressed and passionate enough to rise up in open rebellion.

There are several explanations why these pedigree dogs do not usually bark. But the biggest one is probably this. News and current affairs has been one sphere of the BBC that has unquestionably been strengthened since John Birt joined the corporation just over a decade ago. He has certainly beefed it up in terms of resources, hiring a host of specialist journalists and massively expanding the BBC's network of foreign correspondents to make it a serious rival to CNN in global newsgathering. In just over a month's time the BBC will unveil its long-awaited 24-hour news channel.

The BBC can do this because Birt has boosted the resources available to news and current affairs to a point where foreign correspondents are now able to keep close tabs on key trouble spots and chronicle the ongoing drama of economic globalisation on every continent.

Fergal Keane summed up their sense of collective pride last week in a lecture he delivered at the Royal Television Society's biennial Cambridge convention. "Those of us who are foreign correspondents with the BBC consider ourselves to be lucky men and women," he told the audience of TV executives. "I know as a reporter that there is nothing quite like having the full power of the BBC's creative machine behind you on the big story. The emphasis is on giving the reporter the time to observe and think."

But, as Keane is acutely aware, there is a grave danger that, when BBCNews24 comes on air, reporters like him will have much less time to spend on understanding the story they have been sent out to cover. "We must be aware of this danger," Keane stated. "The reporter cannot become a pack donkey, capable of bearing huge loads but braying a forlorn gibberish every time he opens his mouth."

And braying, he might have added, to a tiny audience. As the ratings for Sky News demonstrate, there is no massive public demand for such a service - except in exceptional circumstances such as the week following Diana's death, when a total of 5 million tuned into Sky News at some point.

This statistic was also seized upon by BBC mandarins in a desperate, late attempt to make a populist case for this questionable and costly venture.

"Can anyone still doubt the need for the BBC doing 24-hour news?" was the rhetorical question posed by BBC1 controller Alan Yentob at the convention.

In fact, there are still many inside the corporation who seriously question the wisdom of entering into 24-hour news. The real reason the BBC is getting into this game, they fear, is the same reason why they they were bent - at least until last week's revolt - on replacing a BBC of individual news and current affairs programmes with a BBC of networks: because the people running the organisation today are so obsessed with the growing commercial competition both at home and abroad that they are steadily transforming the corporate ethos of the BBC itself into that of a commercial business.

Tensions arise because that obsession is not shared by the people who bring us the news. Fergal Keane may not have been among the "stars" who revolted last week, but his Cambridge lecture contained these words: "I don't know of a single person in BBC News, from the most distant stringer to the most senior executive, who is prepared to compromise on a fundamental adherence to the principle of journalism first, business after that. That is the unalterable principle that is our heritage and our mission. And I would rather sweep the streets of London than compromise on that."

Those are words which Tony Hall, the BBC's head of news, would do well to ponder during the next six weeks as he thinks again about drastically altering the way the BBC produces its television and radio news programmes.

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