Beam me up, John Birt

What will happen to the BBC's World Service?

John Birt's blueprint for reorganising the BBC has merit. That's hard for a member of the BBC World Service's staff to admit, and grounds for tar-and-feathering these days in the greasy spoon Bush House canteen.

But as the US Affairs Analyst at Bush House for the past three years, I've seen this organisation struggle mightily and ultimately fail to come to terms with both the free market and the blistering pace of technological change in the media industry. So Birt, while lacking in tact, deserves credit on one count. The fact is, without dramatic change, the BBC is a 20th-century broadcasting giant in danger of perishing early in the next millennium.

That said, what's wrong with the BBC has nothing to do with the BBC World Service. It is Birt's plan to absorb this unique and fragile BBC subculture into the "mainstream" that has quite understandably caused a loud outcry.

For the sake of full disclosure, I should admit right here that I am an American citizen, and as such a complete stranger to the culture of public broadcasting I entered when I joined the Bush House staff in 1993.

It was a journalist's dream, one where, more than any other organisation on this planet, the inherent value of the story is what counted.The Foreign Office, which controls the World Service budget, wasn't considered, consulted or deferred to in news judgements. Indeed, we went out of our way to let the diplomats know that, while they held the purse strings, we felt no compulsion to curry favour.

How far away that world seems now. In my three years here, the World Service has gone from an organisation praised by dissidents to one pitied by our rivals and lamented by many of its oldest devotees. The litany of hair-brained, new-age management consultancy began creeping into our managers' vocabulary during the Thatcher years, but it's taken root only recently.

The Harvard-business school voodoo management speak was soon all the rage. Producer Choice. Regionalisation. DeLayering. Journalists lost prestige and authority to auditors; experts in everything from Tibetan religion to Czech politics have been shunted aside or pensioned off, talented correspondents stockpiled on a miserable bulletins desk for lack of travel money, producers deluged with the self-defeating task of issuing nonsensical billing notices to other BBC departments.

The launch of a BBC World Service television network three years ago has also been a disaster. But worse than the absurdly poor production values is the fact that the television operation, thanks to a series of disastrously naive business moves, has started to drag World Service radio down with it. The list of mistakes is long: relying on Rupert Murdoch's satellite to carry WSTV in Asia, and then getting booted off; failing to realise that Ted Turner and other American broadcasters would never allow the Beeb to get a toehold in the States; trusting a band of Saudi brigands with the journalistic reputation of the BBC for the sake of putting an Arabic Service television network on the air.)

BBC managers explain this all away as either bad luck or justifiable risk. What they don't like to admit is that each of these disasters has led to cutbacks in the World Service radio's coverage of vital events.

The shape of the changes to come is not yet completely apparent, but the implications are clear. The World Service's management, in an ironic bit of justice, found that their faithful spouting of Birtist philosophy had been rewarded with a stiff slap in the face. World Service's autonomous newsroom was to be absorbed by domestic BBC News and Current Affairs. To say that World Service staff regard their managers as emperors without clothes would be to grossly overdress them.

This is all very easy for me to say. After all, I'm leaving. I'm going to Seattle, where Microsoft and NBC News have launched a new network, MSNBC, on television and the Internet. As one of my Bush House colleagues said, "You've managed a transfer pass from the Titanic to the Space Shuttle. Good on ya, mate."

Things may not be that dire for World Service, but that's the state of play in the morale department. And indeed, MSNBC, like the Space Shuttle, could explode on take-off. But at least I'm not waiting around for some bureaucrat to decide my future. I'll take my chances on technology anyday.

The writer, who has been the BBC's US affairs analyst since 1993, becomes senior foreign correspondent for MSNBC at the end of the month.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Arts and Entertainment
musicOfficial chart could be moved to accommodate Friday international release day
Wes Brown is sent-off
Italy celebrate scoring their second try
six nations
Glenn Murray celebrates scoring against West Ham
footballWest Ham 1 Crystal Palace 3
Arts and Entertainment
Drake continues to tease ahead of the release of his new album
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Ashdown Group: Junior Business Systems Analyst - High Wycombe - £30,000

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Junior Business Systems Analyst role...

Guru Careers: Talent Manager

£30-35k (P/T - Pro Rata) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienc...

Sauce Recruitment: New Media Marketing Manager - EMEA - Digital Distribution

£35000 - £45000 per annum + up to £45,000: Sauce Recruitment: The Internation...

Recruitment Genius: Marketing / PR / Social Media Executive

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A thriving online media busines...

Day In a Page

The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

Michael Calvin's Last Word

For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

Time to play God

Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

MacGyver returns, but with a difference

Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

Tunnel renaissance

Why cities are hiding roads underground
'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

Boys to men

The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

Crufts 2015

Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
10 best projectors

How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

Monaco: the making of Wenger

Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

Homage or plagiarism?

'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower