Victory on Four, a rolling news nightmare on Five

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The Independent Online
WHEN I began the ferocious rearguard action to save Radio 4 long wave from 'rolling news', I knew the battle could be won, even though we were mere listeners and the BBC had hundreds of public relations staff to deal with us. In the first letter I wrote to supporters, I spoke of the defence of the Tiber bridge by Horatius: sometimes a few determined people can defeat a barbarian horde.

The listeners have tasted victory, but to me it is tainted by the knowledge that the News and Current Affairs Directorate still rules at Broadcasting House, the governors of the BBC are still doormats, and there is still mayhem on the radio networks.

The central problem of the whole sad affair is that a cabal of News and Current Affairs managers want their own national network to play with, giving airtime to the large number of journalists hired since John Birt 'joined' the BBC, a period that has seen thousands of job losses elsewhere in the corporation.

The management claims that a news network is a promise that the BBC made to the listeners. It is no such thing: it is a promise they have made to themselves. Nobody who heard it will ever forget how Jenny Abramsky, Head of BBC Radio News and Current Affairs, attempted in a tame interview to convey what 'rolling news' would be like. She gave no indication to this listener that she had any idea at all. At least she has been denied the wonderful 1500 long wave frequency that would have carried her amorphous nonsense to the Outer Hebrides and deep into Europe.

But now they have a grip on 261 medium wave, what will they do with it? We are told to expect a news and sport service, but already the news cuckoos have begun to feather the nest. They plan to dump Test Match Special on 1500 long wave for 40 days of the year. Why? Because if Truman and Boycott were at the microphone we wouldn't be able to hear the news people squeaking about some 1lb bomb in Downing Street, or, as this will be a 'popular' news service, about the gossip from Buckingham Palace.

Suppose it is the third day of the Golf Open Championship. Faldo has a putt for a birdie, the spectators are hushed . . . but we're off to the City where the pound has been having a bad day, down two cents. This fast-breaking story will not wait, because by the time Faldo's ball is in the hole the pound will be having a good day on the exchanges, up two cents. The sports listener was well served by Radio 5. Now the sport will be interrupted, because there is no point having a continuous news channel if you don't broadcast stories as they break.

So the sports listener will lose continuity, but the loss of children's programming is a more serious evil, and demonstrates clearly the muddied thinking that now prevails at Broadcasting House. Don't believe the BBC when it cites low audience figures for children's programming: the BBC is so ill- informed about its listenership that even the long wave protest was said to be a total surprise. Furthermore, almost no attempt was made by the BBC to advertise the very fine programmes on Radio 5.

But what demonstrates clearly the death of public service at the BBC is that it has not suggested broadcasting the children's programming on Radio 4 long wave. Oh, they'll dump Test Match Special and the Open University stuff on long wave: make the troublemakers suffer. But programmes that would be appropriate to Radio 4, quality speech programmes made with love that would have broadened the appeal of Radio 4 to a new generation, are axed to make way for a network for Ms Abramsky and Tony Hall, Managing Director of News and Current Affairs, to play with.

But there is hope for the listener: the BBC has not planned this network. Unless the sports people can get control, it will flop; the Government will auction the franchise to a tabloid consortium and the chaos that follows will terminate the careers of some of the sponsors of this sad period in radio history. Only then will public service broadcasting again become a priority at Broadcasting House.

The author is the founder of the Save Radio 4 Long Wave Campaign. News at any price, page 25