BBC's World Cup coverage threatened

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The Independent Online
THE BBC's flagship news programmes were abandoned or drastically disrupted yesterday as the technicians' union warned it would target World Cup coverage if its dispute with the corporation is not resolved.

Bectu warned BBC management that six French broadcasting unions have pledged their support and could block the BBC's coverage of key World Cup matches if an agreement is not reached.

Yesterday's coverage of the South African test at Edgbaston was prioritised by the BBC and went ahead with just one interruption, which the BBC said was due to a power failure.

The BBC's live broadcasts were in turmoil all day, beginning with its flagship Today programme. Radio 4 listeners tuning in to the agenda-setting breakfast show were faced with Radio 3's classical music line-up interspersed with news bulletins. Today presenter James Naughtie was among those affected.

On television, Breakfast News was abandoned and replaced with magazine shows and bulletins supplied by the BBC's rolling-news service, News 24. Later in the day, BBC1's One O'Clock News went ahead, but Radio 4's World at One was substituted by a lunchtime concert.

Estimates of how many staff stayed away varied. Bectu said its 6,500 members were joined by other BBC staff who would not cross picket lines, totalling over 15,000. The BBC insisted just 3,500 staff were missing.

Despite talks about talks at the conciliation service, ACAS, until 10pm on Wednesday night, the 24-hour strike began as planned at midnight. A second stoppage looks set to go ahead next Tuesday, although Bectu and the BBC meet at ACAS today, but insiders say an agreement is extremely unlikely.

Bectu's Gerry Morrissey said: "If management come prepared to make a settlement then we'll do that but they haven't shown much sign of that so far." The union will announce further action days if agreement is not reached.

Bectu's dispute with the BBC centres on the BBC's proposal to convert its production resources into a wholly-owned subsidiary, BBC Resources Ltd. The union claims this move is a prelude to full privatisation.

The BBC director of personnel, Margaret Salmon, said: "The BBC made great efforts to minimise disruption to the schedules, which lets down viewers and listeners and damages the BBC." Of the BBC's changes to resources, she said: "It is what any well-run, successful organisation would do."