Get off the Bongo bus. Britain isn't great - not even at flogging telly programmes

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The Independent Online
Rarely in the history of British politics can anyone have approached becoming Foreign Secretary with as little relish as Robin Cook. The member for Livingston would much rather be Chancellor or even Labour leader. But we live in a superficial age in which the leaders of our major political parties must come across in a magic rectangle called television.

Cook's looks - and the fact that his politics remain almost as red as his beard - don't fit that bill. And so he must trek the globe on behalf of Her Britannic Majesty's Government and be trailed by the boys on the Bongo bus ...

The Bongo bus is what a Foreign Office media handler dubbed the battered old boneshaker in which a shabby group of British journalists followed Sir Geoffrey Howe's sleek limousine around South Korea. Among the press pack was John Dickie, who undertook such trips for three decades as diplomatic correspondent of the Daily Mail. He reflects with relish on travelling diplomacy and the impact of the media in his latest book, The Boys on the Bongo Bus (published by John Libbey Media at the University of Luton, pounds 25 hbk).

Dickie was once described by a fellow scribe as "one of the last of the dying breed of Fleet Street prima donnas", a reputation he developed when, carnation in buttonhole, he accompanied a succession of foreign secretaries on their sorties overseas. But, as he concludes, the status of the diplomatic correspondent in the British media has declined sharply. "As the news value of the British Foreign Secretary `in action abroad' dropped down the ratings of events that mattered, television crews stopped sending camera crews on trips in the VC10 and the number of newspaper correspondents dwindled from double figures down to just one or two," he writes.

On Rifkind's first visit to China in January 1996 the Foreign Office could not entice a single correspondent to shell out pounds 2,500 for a place on the plane. "That reflected the change in the status of Britain's Foreign Secretaries abroad ... It also signified the extent to which the relationship with the press had changed and the diminished importance attached by editors to sustaining the relationship at the level at which it flourished during the halcyon days of the Boys on the Bongo Bus."

The fact that Robin Cook is Labour's first Foreign Secretary for almost two whole decades should drum up a few more journalistic passengers for the VC10. And there will, assuredly, be no shortage of camera crews and newspaper correspondents when he and others fly out to Hong Kong next month to preside at the handover of Britain's last colony to the Communist regime in Peking. But the decline in the status of the diplomatic correspondent - and the resultant infrequency of his byline on the front pages - is, as Dickie observes, "a direct consequence of the diminishing impact of Britain's influence on the global political arena".

John Dickie should send a copy of his book to Paul Dacre, the present editor of the Daily Mail, whose Europhobia has even started to unsettle that paper's editor-in-chief. Sir David English told the FT recently: "I sometimes think (Paul Dacre) would like to tow England out into the middle of the Atlantic. I'm not sure that is what I want to do." Hallucinating about a "special relationship" between Britain and America is a common symptom of the post-imperial condition. But there is only one course of treatment: the entire British press corps - not least the editorial staff of the Daily Mail - should get off the Bongo bus and tune into the brutal reality that Britain is no longer Great.

One thing Britain is great at is making telly programmes that are considered wonderful by the rest of the world. Alas, we're still not all that good at flogging them for profit to our many foreign admirers. BBC Worldwide, the commercial arm of the corporation, has been endeavouring to improve the situation and triple the amount of revenue that it generates from international programme sales.

It seemed to be doing quite well for a while. But it has just lost the young hotshot executive it recently put in charge of its global distribution operation. Ms Fabiola Arredondo, a 30-year-old Hispanic American, quit suddenly last week saying that she was a "commercial animal" who wanted to return to "fast decision-making".I saw Ms Arredondo in action - hyperaction, actually - some weeks back at the BBC's Showcase in Brighton, an annual jamboree that Auntie throws to flog her wares worldwide. It was a bit of a struggle getting her to sit still for 10 minutes to talk about the challenge of her job and when she did, her most interesting remarks were, inevitably, off the record. She voiced frustrations about the complexity of the BBC's deal-making process - frustrations that she is now voicing freely on the record.

Her swift resignation from this pivotal post - she has given just a week's notice - is obviously a setback for BBC Worldwide, but its ambitious growth strategy surely cannot depend upon her or any other individual. Fabiola isn't that fabulous n