Magazine article The Spectator

Gaffes Galore

Magazine article The Spectator

Gaffes Galore

Article excerpt

The late Jack de Manio made something of a name for himself when, settling in front of the radio microphone to announce the title of a programme to mark the independence of Nigeria, he intoned, `We now present Land of the Nigger...' He should have said, of course, 'Niger' with a soft g. There was a diplomatic row, government apologies and so on. He was told to lie low for six weeks until the fuss died down. He later went on to become the first presenter of Today, his bosses thinking it would be a quiet backwater.

This story has entered BBC folklore but I was reminded of it by the urgency of an important decision that will have to be made next week by the Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind. He has to decide the future of the BBC World Service. This week the report of the joint FCO/BBC Working Group on the BBC's restructuring plans is ready for his perusal. This group has been meeting for some weeks at the old Colonial Office to examine the BBC Director General John Birt's plans to merge the World Service English language programmes with domestic radio and television. Although Rifkind is responsible for the Government's funding of the World Service, he was not told about the restructuring in advance, so this working party is a kind of retrospective consultation.

After being grilled by the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee during the summer, Birt complained to an aide that if he'd been running ICI he would not have to consult in this way. First, no one in their right minds would put him in charge of ICI, and, second, the BBC is, unlike ICI, publicly funded, both by the licence fee and, in the case of the World Service, by taxpayers' money through the Foreign Office.

John Birt, incidentally, is the first director general in the corporation's history not to be the accounting officer for the World Service. He delegated that task to Bob Phillis, his deputy, an indication, I think, of his lack of interest in it, and radio as a whole, except as a means of cutting costs by merging it with national broadcasting. Phillis, as the accounting officer, was given a mere 48 hours notice of the changes. Birt, and his chairman, Sir Christopher Bland, are really television men, hence the obsession with digital technology and a 24-hour television news channel.

Every organisation needs modernising to compete effectively but Birt claims that, if the World Service is not restructured, it will be `left behind' and become a museum. It is not a museum now, having adapted well to change. …

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