This is the news from the BBC: talent-spotter seeks star quality

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The Independent Online
THE BBC is to launch a drive to find new talent among its news correspondents. It is employing an independent consultant who will compile a list of potential stars, in the mould of Kate Adie and John Simpson, by the end of the year.

Bob Wheaton, a former editor of the Six o'clock News, has been asked to help the BBC to find new on-screen talent and to identify individuals in regional newsrooms who have the star quality to make it on national and international news.

Mr Wheaton says the modern competitive environment in television requires that correspondents have a certain amount of charisma, and a lively on- screen presence, which is unfortunate for those workmanlike correspondents who are competent and have authority, but remain unrecognised by the general public.

Although Mr Wheaton is not naming names, it is clear that the qualities he is looking for will favour reporters in the tradition of Adie and Simpson who have become known as personalities. Ben Brown, who reports from overseas trouble spots, and Bridget Kendall in Washington, are also seen by BBC insiders as up and coming stars. Philippa Thomas, who reported the Louise Woodward case, is also likely to be groomed for greater things.

"I'm looking for people who are natural on television, and whose talent is a joy to watch," said Mr Wheaton. He added that it was more important than in the past that correspondents were well-groomed: "I personally favour jackets, especially on the national news."

Mr Wheaton will also study the performances of reporters on other channels, from ITN to CNN, to identify people who the BBC might try to poach. In his BBC days, he introduced many new presenters to the corporation, including Tim Sebastian, Justin Webb and Donald MacCormick.

The study follows the recent publication of the BBC's "news review" strategy document, which said that "specialist correspondents" would be more prominent in the new BBC, and indicated that audiences like to see two-way conversations between the news anchorman and the BBC's own specialist correspondent as a way of explaining breaking news stories.

BBC insiders said there was a danger of a two-tier system emerging for correspondents, with good-looking "performers" being favoured over "ordinary hacks".

The emphasis placed on performance skills, rather than the old ethic that a reporter should be workmanlike but unobtrusive on screen, will inevitably bolster charges that the BBC is "dumbing down".

However, the corporation's director-general, Sir John Birt, rejected the charge yesterday. When asked at a meeting of the Voice of the Listener and Viewer organisation why it was that listeners to Radio 4 were these days "never more than half an hour from an inane quiz", and why there were so many "animal" shows where serious documentaries used to be, he said the BBC was committed to serving audiences of all types, "not just an elite".

He was also asked why serious documentary strands, such as Omnibus, Everyman and Panorama, were being scheduled at ever-later times, and said that the viewers' concern was one that "I will take away with me".

In a discussion of the BBC in the digital age, he said he believed the BBC should be financed by a licence fee "for ever", and that ITV and Channel 4 might, in the long term, struggle to survive.

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