Beam me up, John Birt

What will happen to the BBC's World Service?
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The Independent Online
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.