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Coming Soon to Your Telly: Those BBC Chaps

TIMES STAFF WRITER

From the executive suite of the broadcast giant that assertively bills itself as “the world’s largest news organization,” Tony Hall of the British Broadcasting Corp. is embarked on an audacious, chancy swim against a rising journalistic tide.

Arguing that a current decline in international news coverage is dangerously myopic for countries like Britain and the United States, the 46-year-old executive director of BBC News is expanding foreign reporting and analysis and increasing his network’s outlets at home and abroad.

Tally ho, America: The BBC is honing in on your car radio and television screen.

The economic and intellectual future, Hall argues, belongs to nations whose decision-makers are best informed about one another. Those who will reap the bountiful harvest of millennial change must understand the challenges--and risks--of rapid globalization that has replaced superpower confrontation as the decisive end-of-century fact of international life.

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“The world is now much more complex; that is the great underlying challenge,” Hall said. “The biggest threat--or opportunity--for all of us, to our living standards and our children’s, is undoubtedly globalization. As far as I am concerned, it’s as big a story as the Cold War.”

Challenging disinterest in foreign news among viewers and readers, advertisers and corporate managers since the end of the Cold War, Hall is extending BBC news horizons: more news bureaus, a Web site, a growing TV news channel.

Noting shrinking foreign reports and analysis in American newspapers and television, Hall will soon probe the U.S. market. By year’s end, he expects that BBC World Television, a 24-hour news and information channel already seen in 174 countries, will make its commercial American debut.

A 50-minute, internationally focused daily news show--jointly produced by the BBC, WGBH Boston and Public Radio International--debuts July 1 on 500 American public radio stations, the BBC says. To be broadcast, like the BBC’s World Service, from Bush House in London, the as-yet unnamed show is intended as an early morning drive-time replacement for departing Monitor Radio’s “Early Edition.”

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The new radio show will “focus on the global news stories of most importance to the United States,” says Sam Younger, director of the BBC World Service. The venerable World Service, for so long the standby for international travelers, is already retransmitted by 180 public radio stations in the United States, including nine in Southern California, the BBC says.

Americans, like the rest of the world, will also have access to a new BBC online international news site launching on the World Wide Web in October.

Covering the world better is a matter not only of good journalism, but also of enlightened self-interest, Hall believes.

“Decisions about our economy, about our jobs, are being made globally--or at least beyond the nation-state--to a greater and greater degree. Those changes are happening faster than at any other time in our history,” he maintains. “To understand how your community can operate at a very local level, can grow jobs, can sustain itself, you must have the bigger context.”

Decisions made on local information are incomplete without larger input. Think you’d like to breathe life back into Britain’s shoe industry? First watch a BBC special that traced a pair of athletic shoes from a back-land factory in Asia to--exponential markups later--a glossy European designer showroom.

Citing American research, Hall says there are about 250 million workers in the United States and the 15 nations of the European Union today who earn around $85 per day. Within a generation, about 1.2 billion Third World workers will join labor markets, earning less than $3 per day. Globalization on that scale potentially affects everybody’s job and every family’s pocketbook, he says.

A Liverpool native with a self-described penchant for “the big trends that shape people’s lives,” Hall joined the BBC out of Oxford University, reporting from tormented Northern Ireland in the early ‘70s before becoming a news executive.

From BBC News headquarters in west London, he now presides over 2,000 journalists in eight domestic and 42 foreign bureaus, and 12 channels of television, radio and online media. Among them, polyglot World Service Radio, the international radio news quality standard for decades, boasts an estimated audience of 143 million around the globe.

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People really listen to an institution known affectionately around the world as “the Beeb”: More than 2 million listeners to the World Service’s Thai service wrote last year to answer quiz questions about English soccer. And yet how many First World listeners could tell you who rules Thailand or what is Bangkok’s most pressing problem?

“At a time when most of our futures are decided globally, the readership of our newspapers and the audiences of our broadcast programs appear to be less interested in the world. And journalism, in response, seems less interested, more introspective, too. This should be of major concern to anybody who is interested in good, intelligent media,” Hall said in an interview.

Most First World news organizations, he notes, are spending less on foreign news, justifying it as cost-cutting, “but also because surveys show that audiences and readers aren’t really interested. They say, ‘It’s not us, you understand--it is the folks out there!’ ”

The first challenge for a major news organization in these changing times, Hall says, is deciding how to engage people in “what we all believe are the crucial issues of our times.”

The publicly funded BBC will spend more this year on news coverage than last, Hall says. Not because there is more to spend, but because cost savings in the news division can be reinvested in improving coverage rather than returned to the bottom line, as they might in a private corporation.

Like globalization, Hall says, the Internet poses a new challenge. The indiscriminate welter of information available without any assurance of accuracy demands more reporters practicing a new breed of qualitative journalism, says Hall.

“We need to commit to firsthand journalism, from people who know what they are talking about, reporting directly from where things are happening about what is happening,” he says. “These people must be experts--specialists . . . with an urgent ambition to communicate.”

Tony Hall

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