BBC chief says he will complete term of office

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SIR MICHAEL Checkland, Director-General of the BBC, denied yesterday that he was a lame duck and scotched reports that he would be stepping down two months before the end of his term of office next February.

As if to prove his point, he gave the firmest statement yet of his vision for the BBC's future, including a link-up with Sky News and abandoning down-market television programmes such as game shows and cheap, bought-in material. He also denied that there were plans to close two of the BBC's radio stations.

His decision to stay on will dismay some of his senior colleagues, who believe there is bound to be paralysis in the BBC's leadership until John Birt succeeds him.

'There hasn't been a vacuum of leadership,' Sir Michael insisted in an interview with Brian Redhead on Radio 4's Today programme. 'It has been led in a positive and concerted way.'

He had agreed to be interviewed to answer the strong criticism made of the BBC at the Edinburgh Television Festival last weekend by Michael Grade, chief executive of Channel 4. One of Mr Grade's main charges was that the BBC seemed to be moving towards elitist programming, taking the 'high ground', instead of being a universal broadcaster.

While Mr Checkland declared that there would be fewer 'money-based quizzes or entertaining quizzes' and fewer 'lower- cost purchased programmes', he added that he still aimed at quality across a broad range, including comedy, sport and popular drama: 'I think people are misunderstanding what high ground means. It doesn't mean a narrow ridge.'

He said the BBC would continue to schedule less popular programmes, such as science and religion, at prime time. It is likely that such programmes will be marginalised on Channel 3 when the new ITV schedules are introduced next year.

Mr Checkland's announcement that he was in discussion with BSkyB, the satellite broadcaster half owned by Rupert Murdoch, about co-operating on a 24-hour news channel, shocked critics of the deal with Sky over Premier League football. But Mr Checkland believes strongly that the BBC should have a 24-hour news service and that no terrestrial channel can accommodate it. A radio rolling news service will be introduced by 1994.

He said the 24-hour news channel would be under the BBC's editorial control but that marketing and finance would be handled by its partner - meaning that it could be financed by advertising without sacrificing the BBC's integrity as a non-commercial broadcaster.

A BBC spokesman said yesterday that Sky was not the only company with which this was being discussed, but he declined to name the others.

David Mellor, the National Heritage Secretary, will publish a Green Paper on the BBC's future next month. Speaking at the Independent/Traverse Theatre conference in Edinburgh yesterday, he said he was a strong supporter of the BBC but that from time to time it was right for the Government to 'give it a wash and brush-up'.

Animated versions of Noddy and the works of Shakespeare feature in a new pounds 38m package of children's TV programmes announced by the BBC.