Bush House belongs to the world

Birtist philistinism will kill off a unique cultural gemstone
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The Independent Online
An American friend visiting London from New Mexico telephones. "Why is he doing this?" "He" being John Birt and "this" being changing the World Service. My friend, who catches World Service programmes on his local public radio station in the US is bewildered and incensed by Birt's idea to centralise news and features programmes with the domestic BBC output. Even from New Mexico it is clear that means editorial loss of independence and the end of the World Service. It's not just Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama or Terry Waite who listen to the World Service and are concerned that the Birt changes may destroy it.

"Don't they understand what the World Service means?" my friend asks. And I have to answer, "No, I don't think they do." I don't think that the senior managers of the BBC, the handful John Birt actually consults, understand what the BBC World Service and the BBC name mean in the world.

In the previous Birtist re-organisation of the World Service just two years ago, the world was divided into six regions. The idea was to tailor the output to fit the needs of each region. A friend who produces arts programmes told me that some of the regional heads were critical of the weekly arts magazine Meridian. They questioned why they should broadcast the programme. They thought it was too focused on the London scene.

But that's just the point. When you live in a place where culture is American movies, locally made rip-offs of American movies, tightly censored state television, or grotesquely vulgar commercial broadcasters, the cosmopolitan world of London theatre and gallery openings is a wonderful place to be connected to. The impression created is of a place - Britain - where people are interested and expert in many things, where discourse is civilised. That may not be the reality but it is not a bad international image to have.

The BBC isn't simply a brand name or a style of presentation: news read with a British accent and costume drama with authentic petticoat rustlings. It is the substance behind the style. It is also something more abstract: as we live through America's cultural imperium, the BBC demonstrates a different way of looking at the world and offering people an alternative way of learning about it.

For example: there is a little programme that comes out of Bush House called Good Books. Here's the format: presenter and guest talk about a single classic book for 15 minutes, occasionally reading bits of it to one another. What American broadcaster distributing programmes internationally would dream up such an idea? It's too simple. It goes on too long and its about books for goodness sake. You can just about imagine an American broadcaster doing something called Good Fashion ... provided the broadcaster could find a fashion label to buy all the available advertising time.

But when Good Books is heard in Sierra Leone, Tel Aviv, Singapore or Topeka, Kansas, it brings listeners into a cultural world where people just sit around and talk about books. It creates a constituency for Britain's culture that not even British films can create because there are so few that get worldwide distribution. The World Service is there all the time.

So my friend wants to know what happens to programmes like that. I have to tell him it is impossible to imagine Good Books surviving if World Service features get thrown into a centralised commissioning system. I say this with some certainty because I know what makes Bush House tick. I work for National Public Radio, America's non-commercial public service radio network. My office is in Bush House. I know what a unique place it is. An international resource that no nation or organisation could ever have planned but which somehow evolved. It's a cross between the UN, Oxbridge, Chatham House and Fleet Street. It's a high-minded souk where information is constantly exchanged.

Seated in my little cubby-hole, I get calls throughout the week from various producers looking for background information on aspects of American life: from simple things like the names of pundits in Mississippi or Kansas to just plain, old brain-picking on what makes American society tick. The traffic goes both ways. Earlier this year, I went to Greece to report on the change of government there and its ill-feeling towards the US over the foreign policy tilt towards Turkey. I stopped in at the Greek section and walked away an hour later with contact phone numbers and a level of expertise that no trawl through recent cuttings could have given me. This kind of information exchange goes on every minute of the day in Bush House.

There is no form of accountancy or management theory to quantify the value of this experience. But it is possible to guess that the knowledge and information generated from Bush House could be commercially exploited. It seems odd that, as the BBC management tries to figure out how the BBC can better exploit its brand name, it has failed to sell the Bush House database around the world. NPR pays for access to it but the analysis and raw information contained in the Bush House computer system is useful to more than just other broadcasters. It could be sold all over the world. But to exploit the data commercially it would be necessary to keep the World Service as it is. The culture of Bush House is gossamer: pull one thread out of it and it will fall apart.

And that may already be happening. Since the initial announcement that Bush House's news and features will be merged with domestic production there has been some backtracking. The newsroom will remain in Bush House for another 18 months. But few people on the staff expect much more of a reprieve. As for the feature producers - no one knows.

So why is He doing this, my friend insistently asks me again. I think to myself about John Birt's words this week before the Commons select committee on foreign affairs: "Audiences are changing ... markets are changing, delivery systems are changing".

It's about new technology and money, I explain - being prepared to take advantage of the rumoured new information age. My friend is as sceptical as I am about whether this digital information age will ever live up to its advance billing. But even if it does, he points out, it won't change the World Service audience. If it is blended into something else, what's the point? People don't come to the World Service because of the delivery system. They seek out the World Service because it is unique.

He's right. The thing about having the most sophisticated and intelligent audience in the world is ... they will hear the difference. And then they will stop listening.

The writer is London Correspondent of National Public Radio. In 1994, he won a Sony Award for his World Service series, 'Homeward Bound'.