Birt backs down over World Service plan

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The Independent Online
John Birt's plans to shake-up the BBC World Service received a set-back yesterday when the BBC Director-General bowed to pressure to introduce safeguards preserving its historic independence.

In a joint statement, the BBC and Foreign Office, which funds the World Service, said 20 checks would be implemented to protect its reputation for quality. Foremost among them was the assurance that the World Service would still have its own English language news service.

The statement followed heavy criticism of Mr Birt's plan to merge the World Service's English language news department with the BBC's domestic news and current affairs operation.

Under the proposal agreed by Malcolm Rifkind, the Foreign Secretary and Sir Christopher Bland, Chairman of the BBC Board of Governors, the World Service will retain its own dedicated, standalone news-gathering staff.

Mr Rifkind, who is understood to have been irritated by the unilateral way the BBC plan was presented to him, insisted the two newsrooms should not be united completely and that the World Service should retain an element of control. Under the joint plan announced yesterday, they will move closer: World Service items will be produced by a dedicated unit within BBC News.

But the World Service will continue to have its own people seconded from BBC News. World Service programme commissioners will have the power to specify content, style, range and breadth of programmes.

In the event of a dispute, the World Service can go to senior BBC management - right up to Mr Birt - and the BBC's Board of Governors will have to be informed. Staff at the BBC remained "sceptical" about the impact of the safeguards. "We have still to be convinced," said one BBC insider. "There is still a lot of concern."

John Tusa, former head of the World Service, said the safeguards re-stated the position that had been in existence for 20 years.

Mr Birt said: "The process has been healthy and constructive; it has strengthened the World Service, helped safeguard the quality and ethos of a service we all value, and deepened the relationship between the BBC and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office."

Sir Christopher echoed Mr Birt: "It has been an extremely useful process. It has allowed the BBC to clarify the issues and develop some of the detail of the re-organisation, enabling the Foreign Secretary to get a better understanding of the plans, and to recognise that the BBC vision for the World Service can bring substantial advantages."