BBC controversially scraps ‘Dateline London’

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In China, where the BBC is available only in foreigners’ residences and selected hotels, the state censor would blackout the transmission every time anything uncomplimentary was said about the People’s Republic…reports Asian Lite News

The BBC has given a controversial burial to one of its popular current affairs programmes – ‘Dateline London’ – after its remarkable 25-year run.

The decision has disappointed many within and outside Britain, for the weekend half-hour programme, which discussed subjects of international interest and was aired on both domestic and world services of the BBC, commanded a viewership of 12-15 million, according to its executive producer Nick Guthrie. It was also reportedly quite inexpensive to produce.

A significant section of Dateline’s audience was in India, ranging from Indian diplomats to influential folks who regard the BBC to be a credible source information.

In China, where the BBC is available only in foreigners’ residences and selected hotels, the state censor would blackout the transmission every time anything uncomplimentary was said about the People’s Republic.

In a ‘goodbye speech’ at a Dateline farewell party, Guthrie, a BBC veteran since 1968, hinted the broadcaster’s management had succumbed to pressure from the British government by scrapping the programme.

He said: “Just because a particular group, government, lobby groups, whatever, object to views expressed by others does not mean the BBC has to kow-tow. All the more important it has to stand up robustly for freedom of speech.”

Since the premiership of Margaret Thatcher, the BBC, a public broadcaster under a Royal Charter, has often been under pressure when a pro-private sector Conservative party is in power. This was most acutely felt when Boris Johnson was recently the Prime Minister. His government threatened cuts to the organisation’s funding, which come from licence fees from UK households.

Dateline, with a panel of mostly foreign correspondents stationed in London, reflected independent views, with no restrictions on fair criticism of authorities, including the British establishment.

In anticipation of cuts, the BBC embarked on an economy drive, including merging channels.

A spokesperson for the BBC stated: “As a 24-hour news channel (referring to the domestic service, which was one of platforms premiering and repeating Dateline), we are constantly reviewing our output and exploring how our schedules can best deliver news content that is valuable and relevant to viewers.”

She went on to say: “As the channel’s output has evolved, we now have a number of programmes that offer a similar experience to our audience, from ‘The Context’ with Christian Fraser to ‘Unspun World’ with John Simpson.”

Guthrie mentioned in his speech: “I am concerned the BBC has decided to merge News 24 with World TV. I am sad they could not find a spot for Dateline on the new channel. As I find BBC people talking to BBC people (however brilliant they are), no substitute for lively discussion between outside experts and opinion makers. Why? Because the BBC people are not allowed opinions and it is opinions that the public wants to hear.”

The first presenter of Dateline was Charles Wheeler, an impeccable BBC journalist, who was the network’s correspondent in India in the late 1950s and early 1960s, married an Indian and was Boris Johnson’s father-in-law. The programme was granted a mere six-week contract.

Guthrie claimed there were only three formal complaints about Dateline’s content in its quarter of a century existence. One of these was from the Indian government, which objected to the London correspondent of Hindustan Times criticising the late Queen Elizabeth’s mother, known as The Queen Mother, ‘over something’!

“Every week for those past 25 years some of the most distinguished commentators and foreign correspondents based here in London have been able to give their views on current events,” Guthrie underlined.

For 15 of those years, Ashis Ray, who was previously a presenter of South Asia Survey on the BBC’s World Service and then South Asia bureau chief and editor-at-large at CNN, was a familiar face on Dateline as the London correspondent of The Times of India, Business Standard and other Indian publications.

“I will miss Dateline,” he reflected. “It involved polite, yet enlightening and penetrative submission of views, mostly very well moderated.”

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