Rob Brown

Even when a former colony is handed over to communist despots, the BBC must do the job with panache ...

When the People's Liberation Army make their dramatic crossing from China into Hong Kong today, they may find themselves trembling at the sight of an even more awesome force - the massed battalions of the British Broadcasting Corporation. The BBC has sent 180 of its staff to "the territory" to record countless renditions of `Rule Britannia' in four-and-a-half hours of live TV coverage plus round-the-clock radio commentaries over an intense 48-hour period.

The subliminal message transmitted to viewers and listeners back home will be subtle but unmistakable: Britain may no longer be Great enough to tear up a century-old diplomatic treaty and tell the totalitarian rulers in Peking to keep their blood-stained hands off Hong Kong, but, by golly, can we film the final lowering of the Union flag when we're beating the retreat.

Britain has lost an empire, but "the world's premier public service broadcaster" isn't searching for a new role. The spectacle of empire has been succeeded by the equally flamboyant spectacle of imperial retreat. Even when former colonies are handed over to communist despots, it must be done with style and panache - and beamed back in full to Her Britannic Majesty's square- eyed subjects.

It is a daunting technical and newsgathering challenge, but fear not. The people who turned a majority of the world's landmass pink in the course of acquiring an empire which spanned every category of climate and terrain and embraced almost every race and creed, will make sure that John Tusa's baldy pate comes on screen as scheduled at 9.05am today to begin BBC1's live coverage with The Governor's Departure.

That, by the way, will be the Governor of Hong Hong, Chris Patten, leaving Government House - not the forced departure of the BBC Board of Governors, whom some irate viewers and listeners might want to send packing for allowing such a lavish share of the licence fee to be devoured in recording this last gasp of empire.

If you, dear reader, are among those moved to fire off an angry letter to Anne Robinson, do bear in mind that Auntie, as ever, has a ready answer. It will go something like this:

Dear post-imperial party-pooper,

Are you seriously suggesting that the BBC should simply have assigned Fergal Keane and a one-man camera crew to record this historical milestone and major news story?

You must surely realise that British technical expertise was vital to cope with horrendously high temperatures, maximum humidity, intense levels of security, a threat of typhoons, a highly awkward time difference and the fact that the Peking authorities kept altering the arrangements. Not to mention the 23-storey skyscraper that has just been flung up in the last year directly between the harbour and the camera sights from the BBC's temporary cyclone-proof TV studio atop Hong Kong's high-rise "Fame School", the Academy of Performing Arts...

Indeed, the BBC was only in the Fragrant Harbour in such force because it was partnering Hong Kong state broadcaster RTHK and three commercial stations in a host broadcasting consortium for the handover.

Actually, slipping back into serious mode, I doubt whether many viewers and listeners will be moved to reach for their Basildon Bond to complain about the scale of the coverage. The exception may be those Daily Telegraph readers who were wrongly informed by Stephen Glover on Friday that the BBC is dispatching 180 journalists to cover the event. Now that would be a scandal...

Whilst almost 200 of his colleagues are toiling to bring us round-the- clock coverage of the Hong Kong handover today, the managing director of the BBC World Service, Sam Younger, will be hosting a humble ceremony at Bush House to launch the inaugural broadcast of World Update, a new early morning global news programme from the BBC which will be transmitted on public radio stations on the US east coast.

Both the BBC and its partner in this enterprise, Public Radio International, are making much of the fact that the potential half a million listeners form an influential audience. Leaders in government, business and journalism, it is hoped, will rise at 5am to tune into the 50-minute service when they're munching their muffins.

But anyone who thinks that Americans have been totally deprived of intelligent speech radio until now is displaying ignorance. The Stateside airwaves are awash with grotesque shock jocks, all right. But National Public Radio (NPR) is as intelligent and stimulating as anything Radio 4 puts out.

The BBC is actually taking over a frequency given up by the Christian Science Church, whose Monitor Radio has abandoned its civilising mission.

Today the post-Reithian BBC is into commerce more than Christianity. A prime objective of all its Stateside activities is to boost the BBC brand in the US marketplace - a brand which, the corporation loves to boast these days, is "second only to Coca-Cola" in the global recognition stakes.

But BBC World has been repeatedly blocked in its bid to bring its own edifying TV channels to educated Americans. Apparently, in these post- imperial times, we Brits have no more bargaining power vis-a-vis American cable giants than we have with communist dictatorsn

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