Birt revolution begins to be dismantled at BBC counter-reformation

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BBC NEWS is to climb down from John Birt's policy of requiring all news staff to work both for radio and television, it emerged yesterday. A gradual U-turn will begin with a management reshuffle to be announced within weeks.

The BBC has spent millions implementing the bi-media policy, introduced five years ago. Staff say it has serious limitations. "It was obvious from the start that some people are better suited to radio and others to television; anyone could have seen that," said a news producer. Another said: "Full bi-media has never become a reality. For any big story we need to send one person for television, another for radio and a third for News 24. One person simply could not do everything."

A change of personnel at the top of BBC News is expected to result in the appointment of a separate Head of Television News and Head of Radio News. Under bi-media the two jobs were combined in the single post of Head of News Programmes, symbolising the bringing together of all television and radio output.

The reshuffle will start this month when Tony Hall, the chief executive of BBC News, announces a replacement for his deputy, Richard Ayre, who retires at the end of the year. The new deputy will be put in charge of an internal review of "production processes", which is widely expected to recommend the controversial reintroduction of the two posts. The process, being gradual, is designed to avert the publicity that would surround a sudden U-turn, news insiders said.

While a large number of reporters and correspondents will continue to work both for radio and television, the change in management structure will, it is hoped, correct some of the negative consequences of bi-media working and formally recognise its limitations.

The system, according to its critics, tends to favour television to the detriment of radio and has resulted in both television and radio producers being too busy to stay at the cutting edge of production skills.

The BBC admits that it is running television and radio production workshops to try to improve employees' craft skills.

Foreign correspondents such as John Simpson have described how bi-media working and the expansion of BBC news outlets have required them to file more than a hundred reports from the field during one day. However, the restructuring is not expected to have any impact on their workload.

Other BBC reporters say there is an increasing emphasis on "pretty faces" for television news, a policy which is fundamentally at odds with a bi- media approach. However, the overall increased flexibility of staff is recognised as a benefit, and will remain.

The new heads of television and radio news may eventually question the need for BBC News' three "executive editors", insiders added.

The creation of the executive editor post sparked a public furore two years ago, when presenters John Humphrys, James Naughtie and Anna Ford complained publicly that the new structure would lead to "homogenised" news output.

At the time, the BBC implemented a partial backdown, which would be complete if the current review process gets rid of the posts altogether. However, the move is not expected imminently.

r Bureaux are to be opened in Shanghai, Tehran and Seattle, Mr Hall said. It is part of a move to establish the BBC as "a major global news player".

The Shanghai announcement follows recent difficulties between the BBC and Peking over the way it reports news about China, while the Tehran bureau is being opened at a time of greater tolerance of Western influences.

"Shanghai and Seattle reflect the importance of those cities in terms of business stories," a BBC spokesman said, referring to Seattle's significance as a centre for the computing industry and the home of Microsoft. "And Tehran is politically important."

The new bureaux will help address recent criticism that the British media has cut back foreign coverage, and follows a declaration by the BBC that it is determined to seek quality rather than ratings in its output.

BBC news will, said Mr Hall, also soon be available on mobile telephones. "On the next generation of mobile phones you'll get most, if not all, of what you currently get on the Internet through a modem.

"I want our news to be wherever people want it . That is why, in the near future, we will be announcing a number of strategic partnerships with mobile-phone operators and technology providers throughout the world."

The developments were presented to a conference of international news broadcasters, as BBC News' strategy for "the third age of broadcasting", in which news on the Internet will be particularly important.

"We're finding that on those days when really big stories break," Mr Hall said, "more and more people are turning to our online site either as the first source of news or to get more up-to-date information.

"For day one of Kosovo last March we had 2.3 million page impressions. For our last major story, the Paddington rail crash, we had 3.7 million in a day - a record."