BEST THERE IS
A FOREIGN correspondent has one of the most important jobs in
the BBC. News is the cornerstone of the BBC World Service output
and it is the correspondent's job to get it back. The job is frequently
exciting, not infrequently tedious -- and sometimes dangerous.
Bob Jobbins became the head of the Arabic Service early in 1988
after 12 years as one of the BBC's on-the-spot journalists who
cover the globe. For eight years he was in Egypt and South East
No BBC correspondent has ever been killed (a cameraman died when
a news team strayed into a Cyprus minefield some years ago) and
Bob Jobbins says he was never in a situation where he felt his last
moment had come. Some of his colleagues have had closer brushes.
One, detained in the Lebanon, was found to have an Israeli pass
in his wallet and thought he was going to be executed. Another was
shot in the hand.
'Where war or civil war breaks out, danger escalates sharply,'
Bob Jobbins says. 'That's when you don't stick your head above the
parapet - a dead correspondent is no good to anyone. You're paid
to get information, not to take unnecessary risks.
'But any foreign correspondent must expect to be taken into custody,
to be expelled, intimidated, moved on or even beaten up. That's
a fact of life.' In November 1987, the BBC's freelance in Nairobi
suffered spinal damage when a Kenyan policeman broke a club across
When one considers the dangers, one might well wonder why correspondents
be come correspondents. Even if he is now in a desk job, Bob Jobbins
is in no doubt why. 'If you're going to be a foreign correspondent,
the best of all is being a Bush House foreign correspondent,' he
says. 'There is an insatiable demand for news in the World Service
and it's for an audience that wants serious, informed analysis.
It's fantastic - I'd do it all again.'
A million words a day flood into the World Service news room at
Bush House - from correspondents, freelances, news agencies and
the BBC's own monitoring service which listens to the broadcasts
of other countries. It is the newsroom's task to select the stories,
check the facts and prepare the 200 news programmes transmitted
round the clock.
At almost any time of the day or night, there are news bulletins
going out in one or other of the 37 different language services
- sometimes as many as six at once.
The newsroom never closes. Over 120 journalists, working a three-shift
system, man it 24 hours. And, says its Editor, David Spaull, it
is the best newsroom in the world. 'It's a bold claim, but I reckon
that's the truth,' he says. 'World wide we don't claim to be the
only prime source of believable news - Radio Australia and the Swiss,
for example, do a good job - but few attempt the comprehensive coverage
of the world that we do.
'We face tough competition in some quarters - the Arabic Service,
for instance, is having to compete with a very modern and slick
outfit in Radio Monte Carlo in the Middle East and its counterpart,
Medi-I, in North Africa-and some of our foreign competitors have
bigger audiences here and there. To some extent, certain people
have caught up. But we haven't been overtaken.'
are many reasons why David Spaull's newsroom maintains its position.
Among them are the back-up it enjoys. It can draw on the resources
of the entire BBC. And it has its own 'in-house' expertise - if
there is any doubt about the significance of a particular event,
say a ministerial reshuffle in an East European country - it can
get the answer from the language section concerned, which is staffed
by nationals of that country and Britons expert in its affairs.
Altogether, the BBC has 30 or so foreign correspondents. Some of
them work directly for television, some for domestic radio and some
for the World Service, but all of them can be called upon by the
three output areas and, indeed, all the foreign correspondents frequently
contribute to Bush House's 'Radio Newsreel'. Additionally, any material
transmitted by the BBC at home - an interview with an international
statesman, for example - can be taken up by the World Service.
of this gives the BBC's overseas news broadcasts an authority and
scope beyond any comparable organisation.
A story which illustrates the point concerns a BBC correspondent
who was in Baghdad during a particularly critical phase of the Gulf
The Iraqi government called a news conference to make an important
announcement about the progress of the fighting and international
journalists assembled by the score. Suddenly they rose en masse
and left the room, leaving officials and the BBC man baffled. He
joined the exodus and saw the reason.
A forest of transistor aerials had gone up and the Greenwich time
signal was pipping from dozens of pocket radios. The ears of the
world's press were attuned to the BBC's World Service in English
bulletin, which was leading with the Gulf War. 'It's the only way
we can be sure of what's going on,' said the Washington Post correspondent.
The conference resumed and the BBC man asked an Iraqi official
why he had not joined the group outside. 'Why should I listen?'
he asked. 'That was in English. I find out from the BBC in Arabic!'
Later, the same correspondent went to Amman. He had arranged an
interview with a senior minister on the day the Israeli cabinet
was meeting to decide important moves on the West Bank. Jokingly,
he remarked that the minister would doubtlessly have arranged for
the meeting to be bugged. 'Why should we do that?' came the reply.
'We'll find out what happened from your "Radio Newsreel!"
It is not easy living up to a reputation like that and the newsroom
has just gone through a critical self-examination because, as David
Spaull explains, 'we'd grown over the years to meet the necessities
as they came along, we'd added bits to the operation in all directions.
We needed to stand back and have a good look to see how we could
do things better.'
It took a year or more to identify the problems, come up with
the solutions, then physically to reorganise the newsroom - an awkward
task, because it could not shut down as the alterations were carried
out. In April 1988, in its new guise, the newsroom went to work
with the central writing desk - where all bulletins are prepared
in English - strengthened, and a system implemented of keeping staff
on the same regional desks for three months or more at a time.
'Before,' says David Spaull, 'they were tending to bounce about,
on the South European desk one day, on the Far Eastern desk the
next. We had no continuity.'
The human element is being brought back into the operation, too,
with a recognition that more personal contact between the newsroom
and the language staffs is needed. 'That personal contact had gradually
diminished since the introduction of our electronic news distribution
system 10 years ago,' says David Spaull.
EDS, people from the various sections were always coming into the
newsroom. With electronic distribution, all information started
to be called up on screens instead of being on bits of paper, so
there wasn't the necessity. And, anyway, as we were always moving
staff around the newsroom there wasn't the chance to build up personal
'The problem with technology is its impersonality. It's another
problem we're determined to overcome.'
Technology is essential to cope with the ever-increasing demands
- the newsroom is now not only producing 17 nine-minute bulletins
of world news for the World Service in English, shorter world news
summaries, five-minute news bulletins about Britain, four 15-minute
editions of 'Radio Newsreel' and three 30-minute editions of the
composite news programme 'Newsdesk', but it has started to put out
a five-minute bulletin, preferred by some of the many radio stations
around the world which re broadcast them live.
As the newsroom gears up to face the 1990s, Mark Dodd, the Controller
of Overseas Services, says: 'Towards the end of the 1950s, I remember
being in a group that was discussing the future and we predicted
that in five years, or certainly 10, radio and TV stations in Africa
and Asia would be of such a high standard that all we would be providing
from London would be some cultural programmes for use on their air.
'That hasn't happened. Demand for our news, just as it is for
our current affairs, is immeasurably greater. I see no reason for
that to end, provided we keep up our standards.'