Warning for BBC over World Service changes

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The Independent Online
Appointments to the BBC's World Service by John Birt, the Director General of the BBC, could be reversed under a guarantee given to the Government to head off criticism of changes to the way it is operated.

The Foreign Office minister, Jeremy Hanley, said guarantees had been made that there would be no irrevocable changes made to the staffing of the World Service before a working party has reported on Mr Birt's plans for an integrated newsroom for the BBC.

"We've got no say in the management of the BBC but we do have a say in the quality and to make sure that special nature is maintained. What the working group will have to look at is [to] decide whether the integrated newsroom will cater for the different needs of the World Service," Mr Hanley said on BBC radio.

"We have been given a guarantee that nothing that happens in the meantime will be irrevocable. If the BBC chooses to make management changes or certain appointments in that timescale, there is the understanding they can be reversed if the quality and the ethos of the World Service was proved to be at risk by those changes."

He added: "There also has to be financial transparency because we provide pounds 175m a year and we don't want that money to filter through to the mainstream BBC ... There has to be the proper priority which serves our audience and not just serves the convenience of the BBC."

Malcolm Rifkind, the Foreign Secretary, protested at the failure to give less than 24 hours warning to the Government about the changes to the World Service which is funded on the Foreign Office budget. The joint Foreign Office-BBC working group will report to the Foreign Secretary and Sir Christopher Bland, chairman of the BBC, by the end of September.

Mr Hanley denied that Mr Rifkind would block any changes in October when he meets Sir Christopher, but it is clear that ministers will use the leverage of their funding for the World Service to limit the changes, which have deeply annoyed senior Tory backbenchers.

Sir Christopher agreed to set up the working party, under pressure from the Foreign Secretary, to review the decision. It will be chaired by Christopher Battiscombe, a civil servant, and Sam Younger, the World Service managing director. Yesterday it heard evidence from campaigners opposed to the changes.