Media: BBC's wise old man reverses tack on 24 hr television

When BBC News 24 launches tomorrow evening one of the first on air will be Charles Wheeler, who criticised corporation bosses for getting into this game. Rob Brown, Media Editor, asked him if he had now changed his mind.
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The Independent Online
At 74, Charles Wheeler is just one year younger than the BBC itself. But he obviously has no plans to hang up his microphone and fade quietly into retirement. Rather, he is determined finally to master presenting programmes - something he has never felt comfortable about - by fronting a live studio programme every Sunday on the BBC's new round-the-clock news service.

His decision to get involved in News 24 took a bit of nerve in itself, for this veteran broadcaster has been one of the most outspoken critics of the entire concept of 24-hour television news. When BBC executives announced their intention to challenge Sky's monopoly, Mr Wheeler urged them to think again. And, he did so not in a secret memo but in a public debate on Radio 4.

Mr Wheeler's worry was that foreign correspondents like himself would be so bombarded with demands to supply instant dispatches to round-the- clock bulletins that they would be able to spend scant time in the field finding out what was really happening and framing their thoughts.

"I canvassed opinion in the Washington bureau and found that the correspondents there were alarmed at the prospects of yet more outlets," he explained yesterday. "But BBC staffers are often afraid to speak out. As a freelance I wasn't bound by the same restrictions."

BBC staffers must be grateful that he took this stance because it clearly got some results. More correspondents have been hired for the new service and efforts will be made to ensure that foreign correspondents are sheltered from excessive editorial demands.

"We've listened to Charles Wheeler," said Tony Hall, the BBC's head of news. "He pointed to a potential problem we're now addressing by putting more money into newsgathering."

There are plenty of other prominent broadcasters who would wallow in these words. But egotism obviously doesn't drive Charles Wheeler, best known for his insightful state-of-the-nation reports on the United States. He instantly recoiled at a plan to call his new weekly show on News 24 Wheeler's World.

"I am opposed to what Tom Sutcliffe [TV critic of The Independent] once called the possessive celebrity," he said."Besides I'm only the anchor man."

The 50-minute programme, which will be less egotistically entitled Dateline London, will feature a range of foreign correspondents reflecting upon the past week's news in Britain.

"I think 24-hour news will succeed if it avoids endless repetition of straight news. It's got to have plenty of reflective feature programmes."

But, no matter what News 24 pumps out, it will initially attract a minuscule audience in this country since the service will only be available most of the time on cable. BBC1 will give it a slightly bigger terrestrial audience in the small hours of the morning.

"I can see a situation where there will be so many channels, as in the States, that really good television simply gets lost," Mr Wheeler said. "But the great saving grace of News 24 will be its tie-in with BBC World, which has a significant and growing global audience."

When the pilot edition of Dateline London was screened last week on the television version of the World Service, its presenter was heartened to receive two congratulatory calls from friends in India. Mr Wheeler's wife, Dip, who divides her time between their home in rural Sussex and working part- time for Amnesty International, is Indian.

"As a foreign correspondent I used to always feel I was speaking to a British audience," said Mr Wheeler.

"Now I'll have to picture my audience in Singapore as much as Sussex. But the great thing about journalism is that you learn something every day."