We fight on, for the 140 million listeners

John Tusa on why the World Service must be independent
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The Independent Online
Five weeks on from director-general John Birt's radical reorganisation proposals of 7 June, resistance to them as they affect the BBC World Service has continued to grow. This has taken BBC management by surprise, but has not induced them to offer any substantive changes. The critics must fight on. Why?

First, the reported so-called Birt "concessions" of last Friday do not represent a concession of any significance. Even if World Service News and Current Affairs remain at Bush House, they will still be transferred to the editorial control of BBC News and Current Affairs. Another layer of editorial and managerial control will have been introduced.

Second, the transfer of all other English language programme-making to the new BBC domestic "super" directorates destroys the essential integration of World Service programme-making, where the English service and the 42 other languages live off one another in a symbiotic process.

Third, in the past decade and a half, the World Service has made more and more of its programmes itself. As Radio 4 programmes focused more closely on the needs of their audiences, the World Service found them less suitable for their international listeners. When Bush House made programmes designed for the global audience, the World Service reached levels of listenership and respect never achieved before.

Fourth, the World Service had in the recent past to "commission" some of its financial programmes from Radio 4. They were never satisfactory.

Fifth, under the accounting systems that will prevail in the new structures, the cash-strapped World Service will have to pay for BBC domestic overheads in a way that it has never had to before. It is all designed to help the domestic services.

Five weeks on, the director-general proclaims the perfection of his plans; the possibility of error has never entered his mind. The chairman, Sir Christopher Bland - and how long did he have to scrutinise the proposals before rubber-stamping them? - rejects all criticism as "insulting".

Surely the time has come for some answers. They are owed to the 2,000 World Service staff, the 140 million listeners, and the countless British listeners who know what the service is worth.

The clock should be stopped at 7 June. Nothing will be lost by such a delay, except conceivably some loss of face by the director-general. Nothing should be done until the National Audit Office has scrutinised the Birt proposals to see if they will represent value for taxpayer's money, and will allow the World Service to continue to be editorially and managerially effective.

The writer was managing director of the BBC World Service from 1986 to 1992.