Media: A plea to my new director-general: save foreign news

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The Independent Online
AN ENRAGED chief of the disgraced Serbian Special Police took a swipe at our camera in the suburb of Kosovo Polja a couple of weeks ago. He then reached for his revolver. Sixty of his surly colleagues watched him, with expressions which indicated they'd tear us limb from limb, after the boss had put a few holes in us. This is normally the moment when prudent TV crews make a judgement based on long experience of the Special Police, and either give in or leg it.

We went on filming. His face twisted with rage, and he started yelling. He and his men have a tradition of never allowing cameras near them. And after what they've been up to in Kosovo in the last three months, they have good reason to be camera-shy.

I would like to claim that we were being bold and steadfast journalists facing up to great threat. I'll come clean. Next to me was a large chunk of the Kings Royal Hussars battle group, a bunch of very determined Green Howards, who were prowling round the cops rather like armed Public Health officials inspecting something very nasty indeed.

We had had several similar incidents, when it dawned on the appalled but retreating Serb forces that we were going to continue pointing a camera at them, whatever their objections. None of this holds great significance on the Six O'Clock News - just another aspect of the Milosevic tendency. But when the story went out on BBC World it caused a sensation.

My God - you refused to obey them, said one of our translators, saucer- eyed. Fancy daring to defy them, squeaked an Albanian doctor, who'd just detailed allegations to us of the Specials beating up patients in Pristina Hospital. Who gave you permission to do it, demanded a local Serb politician, shaking his head at the novel concept of uncontrolled journalism.

Yet it is BBC World that is now under threat. Budgetary worries mean that a newsroom of 50 people is likely to be cut by 19 and the whole service might be absorbed by BBC News 24. I hope that among the priorities of the new director-general Greg Dyke will be the safeguarding of BBC World.

Showing a country to itself is one of the great privileges of an international news organisation, climbing over the barriers of national propaganda and censorship. For years, Bush House has been reaching by radio those parts of the world that others can't or won't get to. Now, the satellite dish is pushing information still further. One of the sights of Kosovo - an impoverished region with a language divide - was the racks of dishes perched on crumbling balconies in Pristina and tatty barns in Albanian villages. A horse-drawn wagon went past us northwards, a Serb family fleeing the returning Albanian refugees, all their worldly goods piled up. On the top, their satellite dish.

These people don't treasure their televisions just for Italian game shows and hours of sport and reruns of American crime series. They are eager for news. They watch their own home-grown version, then watch how the prism of an independent organisation reflects the same story. They are thoughtful, perceptive viewers. They belong to a worldwide audience of enquiring, news-hungry people, who appreciate a diet of meaty facts and nutritious information. They never write to us about hairstyles, theme music or how much they fancy the weather person.

Interestingly, they have no idea that the country which originates a 24-hour, heavyweight international news service doesn't actually get to see it. For reasons too complex for a reporter to grapple with, BBC World escapes from Shepherd's Bush without the home audience being made aware of its existence. And it escapes into 145m homes across the world, and countless hotel rooms - where it challenges the notion that Atlanta is the centre of the known universe, and CNN is its bible.

How it tunnels out to this huge crowd of viewers is a bit of a puzzle. In the communications mega-business, its budget resembles a teapot into which the kindly BBC occasionally stuffs a fiver. Its staff are thought to have horse-like qualities which enable them to sleep standing up while in the field. It inspires a passionate devotion among those of us who actually meet the viewer - and have to clumsily respond to heart-felt thank-yous across five continents.

And it turns out the kind of news which is remarkably resistant to the blandishments of info-tainment. In the mad scrum that was the international media circus in Pristina, there was one remarkable consensus: correspondents under pressure to produce instant comment and lightweight feature.

The roof of the Not-at-all-Grand Hotel had a clutch of Dish Bunnies glued to their satellite dish through 24 hours. Cheap, instant two-way interviews, in which the hapless Bunny guessed at events beyond the roof, having been forbidden to go further than his earpiece allowed. Those, particularly among our American colleagues, who were allowed to roam, were under no illusion that their newsdesks wanted simple, personalised stories. Political complexity, the confused state of affairs in the Balkans - no way.

After all, this is television, so couldn't you just find a little old lady and tell her tragic tale in one minute thirty-five?

For a reporter, it's a relief to realise that there's a network which is not afraid to take the difficult stuff head on, and attempt to inform and explain intelligently.

But it amazes our foreign colleagues that BBC World operates on a relative shoestring compared to the domestic output - for example, when the BBC's correspondents are recognised in Macedonia, in India, in Indonesia; when Nato's Jamie Shea wonders - as he did on the streets of Pristina last week - why he got mobbed. It's that man who's always on the BBC, they said. Of course, there are styles and agendas which sweep through the media organisations with a cyclical regularity. Fears of dumbing-down may just be a trendy dish of the day.

However, those of us lucky enough to meet the eager viewers who watch as their domineering and frightening Special Police force gets trailed by a curious and independent camera, are forcefully reminded that plain, serious news has never gone off the menu.

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