Historians attack BBC magazine transfer

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The Independent Online

Twelve leading historians have launched a fierce attack on the BBC in the "dumbing-down" row over the future of the corporation's specialist magazines.

Led by Professor Richard Evans, professor of modern history at Cambridge, the academics denounce the proposed transfer of the award-winning BBC History to an outside publishing company, alleging its high standards will decline and that the proposed treatment of the editor and his colleagues is "frankly appalling".

Their broadside, in a strongly worded letter to executives at BBC Worldwide, the corporation's commercial arm, closely echoes the protests of environmentalists last week after the resignation of Rosamund Kidman Cox, long-standing editor of the much-lauded BBC Wildlife. Well-known Green figures including Jonathon Porritt, chairman of the Government's Sustainable Development Commission, accused the BBC then of sacrificing quality for cost- cutting.

The corporation is proposing to transfer both the wildlife and history titles, along with their stablemate Music, from in-house production to Origin Publishing, a low-cost, low-staff company that prints titles such as Hair Ideas and The World of Cross Stitching, which BBC Worldwide has acquired.

The reasons given are that, although all three publications have healthy circulations - BBC History sells 52,000 a month and is the market leader - they do not make money in their present set-up.

But the transfer to Origin is a real threat to what has made BBC History such a success in its four-year life, write the historians, who are members of the advisory panel appointed from the start to guarantee the magazine's quality.

They include some of the most eminent names in British historical studies. Professor Evans is one the world's leading experts on Nazi Germany and was the expert witness for the defence in the David Irving Holocaust-denial libel trial in 2000. Other signatories include the leading Renaissance scholar Professor Lisa Jardine of Queen Mary college in the University of London, Richard Carwardine, professor of American history at Oxford, and the classics scholar Professor Peter Jones from the University of Birmingham.

They write in praise of BBC History that they have "tremendous admiration for the way in which Greg Neale [the editor] and his colleagues have combined popular appeal with high standards". And they protest that although they were appointed "with a remit to ensure the continuing high standard of the magazine", they were not consulted about the transfer.

They say it is "extremely dismaying" that redundancies are being proposed and that the proposed treatment of Mr Neale and his colleagues - given the choice of relocation to Bristol, where Origin is based, or quitting - "is frankly appalling, given what they have achieved".

But they reserve their severest strictures for the future quality of the magazine, especially if it is merged with Origin's own Living History - a merger which was, in fact, announced late last week.

They say: "Living History is frankly a poor imitation of BBC History magazine. It does not have an advisory board. Its articles are generally mediocre and unoriginal and not written by historians of the calibre that Greg Neale and his team have succeeded in attracting."

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