Media: The BBC goes into battle for supremacy of world airwaves

Next Sunday the BBC will break Sky's monopoly in round-the-clock TV news by launching BBC News 24. As Media Editor Rob Brown explains, Auntie is more than a match for Murdoch's satellite service. She's now on a par with CNN in global newsgathering.
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The Independent Online
It is rather apt that the BBC's first rolling news channel for a British audience should come on air on the evening of Remembrance Sunday. As Great Britons gloat about their victory in two world wars, we have the satisfaction of knowing that there is at least one sphere in which this sceptr'd isle is still a land of hope and glory - global TV newsgathering.

The BBC is one of only two superpowers in this fast-expanding sphere. The other is CNN, the Atlanta-based cable network launched by the buccaneering tycoon Ted Turner. These two operations are shaping up as the Nato and Warsaw Pact of the information age.

Sky News is a nimble operator, and has quadrupled its UK audience in recent weeks with its live coverage of the Louise Woodward trial, but it simply cannot summon the same resources as either of these giants. It's a bit like China - massive potential, but not quite a real superpower yet.

It could become a more formidable force if it can forge closer links with other parts of the Murdoch media empire, especially Fox News in the US, but even then it is unlikely to launch a unified global service to compete with CNN International and BBC World, the 24-hour news channel which is the TV version of the World Service.

BSkyB's continuing weakness in global newsgathering is recognised by Britain's cable companies. Several of them are threatening to ditch Sky News in favour of the new BBC service, which has succeeded in poaching a number of producers from Murdoch's operation in recent weeks.

BBC News 24 will be able to call upon 250 correspondents across the planet. That's 100 more than CNN, which loves to boast about being the largest and most profitable electronic news and information company in the world.

As a public service broadcaster that draws the bulk of its income from a compulsory annual licence, the BBC is not profit-driven. But the man spearheading its newsgathering machine is as fiercely competitive as any of his commercial rivals.

Richard Sambrook has reason to smile. To meet the challenge of feeding two rolling news channels (BBC News 24 for the British audience and BBC World for the rest of the world) he is being given an extra pounds 15m to spend over the next few years.

Some of that money will be spent on upgrading the corporation's live capability, which at present lags somewhat behind CNN. But a considerable amount is also being invested in hiring more specialist correspondents, which the BBC regards as its trump card in the global TV news war.

CNN has been seeking to add depth and dimension to its programming by tailoring it to specific regions of the globe. It even hired a Brit - Sambrook's predecessor as head of BBC newsgathering, Chris Cramer - to help it to "de-Americanise" its output. To assist in this task, CNN has just opened a major new bureau in Frankfurt.

But CNN has also just opened three additional bureaux in the US (based in Boston, Denver and Seattle) and still serves up an essentially American world view. Its network of correspondents certainly do not span the globe as comprehensively as the BBC, the world's premier public service broadcaster.

"The BBC brings you more stories from more places," says Sambrook with pride. "Our expanding team of top specialists can also interpret and analyse events with more authority than any commercial service."

As a former BBC employee, Mr Cramer acknowledges these strengths, but he maintains that CNN is vastly superior in one crucial aspect - rapid mobilisation. "CNN can turn on a 10p and produce programmes at a hair's trigger," he says. "As a public service broadcaster, the BBC is inevitably much more cumbersome and bureaucratic."

BBC News bosses have encountered fierce hostility and resistance from their staff as they have struggled to restructure for the challenge of 24-hour news. Many of its star presenters and senior executives openly rebelled last month at a plan to streamline and centralise its editing structure. And journalists threatened to boycott pilot programmes until management agreed to revise their rotas.

There remains considerable resentment about the way in which news and current affairs programmes on the traditional mainstream channels, such as Newsnight, are having their budgets slashed to pay for the new round- the-clock service. Some question the wisdom of the BBC's entering the round-the-clock news game when demand for such services - even when a young British nanny is on trial in Boston - remains small.

BBC mandarins have managed to deal with the internal dissent, but they have had to rely on others to cope with serious teething problems in the new digital newsroom at Television Centre. At one point, gremlins threatened to delay the launch of the service. Although the problems have not been completely ironed out, the corporation is still apparently on course to go into competition with Sky News next Sunday.

"It's going to be a bit of a bumpy ride at the beginning," says Sambrook. "We don't expect to produce a perfect Rolls-Royce service from day one. But we've got the talent on and off screen to cope with the fury of 24 hour news."