Radio 4 news does the world a disservice

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The Independent Online
There is only one flaw in John Birt's plan to make the World Service get all its news from a central news service. He has got it the wrong way round. All BBC news should be drawn from the World Service. That's because they have real news on the World Service and junk food news elsewhere on BBC. You don't believe me? Well, yesterday I solemnly sat down and took notes on the 8am news bulletin, to see just how serious a news service it was. Here are, in brief, the 13 items covered in 10 minutes.

1. The Prime Minister will announce a training academy to improve British sport.

2. Douglas Hogg makes another statement about the safety of eating lamb.

3. Amnesty condemns Israeli shelling of UN compound as "deliberate".

4. Jury retires for backpackers' murder trial in Australia.

5. Labour MPs claim that criticism of Railtrack has been watered down in rail safety report.

6. Clinton says we still don't know why the plane crashed.

7. Shadow Cabinet elections imminent.

8. Swimmer Paul Palmer wins Britain's first Olympic medal.

9. Rugby Union still in disagreement over Five Nations tournament.

10. Search for mother who abandoned child in Bournemouth.

11. Princess Diana to have her PR looked after by her own staff after her media adviser, Jane Atkinson, resigns.

12. Jessica Mitford dies: brief obituary.

13. Cable companies will have to offer better programmes if they are to get bigger share of market, says ITC.

That's it. That was all the news on Radio 4 yesterday at 8am, on the supposedly prestigious Today programme. In all the world, in all the teeming modern exciting world, they were the most interesting bits of news that the mighty Birtian BBC news machine could find. And yet when you look at them closely, most of them are not news at all. The Rugby Union disagreement is not new. Clinton saying that they cannot yet blame the plane crash on terrorists is not news - it would only be news if they had any clues. Princess Diana's PR arrangements are not of interest to anyone, except perhaps Jane Atkinson's mum and dad. The Bournemouth mother story is a one-day tabloid screamer which deserves no place on Radio 4. The cable TV item is a non-story, perhaps included by the BBC because it suggests cable TV programmes are not as good as the BBC. The shadow cabinet elections and the Railtrack item are not news items, just rumour or speculation about news items.

The only real news items there, honestly, are the Amnesty report on Israel, the PM's promise of a boost for sports training and Jessica Mitford's death, and none of them is exactly what you might call riveting. The rest are parochial, or party politics, or rumour. But then the much- vaunted Today programme is for the most part parochial, speculative and about party politics. The news at 8am had been preceded by an item in which Stephen Dorrell was asked how the disunited Tory Party could keep going, and he said that if you were looking for disunity problems the Labour Party was the place to look, and he kept saying it, and you say to yourself: "For this they dragged in Stephen Dorrell off the street? For this I switched on the much-vaunted Today programme? This they call political debate?"

I cannot get the World Service where I live, so I do not know what news they were putting out at the time. But I do get the International Herald Tribune every day as a sort of World Service substitute, because the Tribune has good world coverage and wonderfully little British parochial news and none of the Malcolm-Rifkind-in-the-radio-car stuff that passes for news in the much-vaunted Today programme. In Tuesday's Tribune the main stories, outside the inevitable Olympics, were about the catastrophic floods in China, the reasons why Japanese surgeons refuse to do organ transplants, the vicious crackdown on crime in China (more than 1,000 people executed since April!), European traffic problems, and a food poisoning panic in Japan which is killing and paralysing enough children to make mad cow disease look puerile. (This finally made the BBC radio news yesterday at 1pm.)

That's a bit more like world news. Certainly the Tribune is streets ahead of the 8am news on the BBC's much-vaunted Today programme. If you doubt this, keep reminding yourself that yesterday Radio 4 news thought that the most important piece of news anywhere in the world was a promise by John Major to give more money to sport. If John Birt's BBC news service thinks that's a lead global news item, then the sooner he hands all news over to the World Service the better.

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