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1991
Radio 5 launches non-stop news
Saddam Hussein brought a non-stop news service to BBC radio early in 1991. It took three years to make it a permanent fixture.

The 16 January midnight news on Radio 4 was going out when Allied forces started bombing Iraq, in response to the invasion of Kuwait. The bulletin stayed on air for over four hours. From the following morning, 17 January, a continuous Gulf War news service was broadcast on Radio 4FM. "Scud FM", its emergency staff called it.

Calls poured in to the BBC offering either congratulations for its ingenuity, or complaints for its disregard of the usual schedule. "Now that the BBC has created, instantly and effectively, an all-news network, would it not be a tremendous waste to un-invent it?" asked the critic Gillian Reynolds in the Daily Telegraph.

However, it was taken off air on 2 March, the moment the conflict ended - to enable the BBC to consider its long-term plans. The prospect of Radio 4 losing one of its wavelengths for good prompted fierce opposition both inside and outside the BBC. Listeners staged a march on Broadcasting House. In the end, Radio 4 survived on both FM and Long Wave.

A continuous speech service of news combined with sport was instead given a home on medium wave with Five Live replacing what was at the time called Radio Five which had a mixed schedule that John Birt described as "improvised and disjointed".

Radio5 Live sprang into life on 28 March 1994. Birt saw it as providing "a service of intelligent news and sport for a younger audience", "coherent and cohesive".

Jenny Abramsky, in charge of radio news and current affairs, saw 5Live as "engaging and accessible", finding a "new tone" for radio news programmes.


Radio 5 Live logo
1991
TV news goes global
Non-stop news on the BBC came to television in October 1991 - just as it had done, briefly, to radio. Again, the change set the pattern for the future.

The BBC World news channel was aimed at an international TV audience, originally under the name World Service Television and funded by advertising and subscription.

The channel rebranded in its present form as BBC World in January 1995, and at that point was available in 24 million homes around the globe.

By the end of 2002 it was reaching 222 million homes across 200 countries and territories.

In December 2002 ownership of BBC World transferred from BBC Worldwide to join BBC World Service Radio in a new global news division.


BBC World flag logo
1995
Anger over royal appointment
On 20 November 1995, Panorama attracted an audience of 22.8 million for Martin Bashir's interview with Princess Diana.

The interview had been recorded a fortnight earlier at Kensington Palace, in great secrecy. John Birt was one of a tiny group who knew what was going on. BBC chairman Duke Hussey, whose wife was a lady-in-waiting to the Queen, was kept in the dark.

Editing was completed at a hotel in Eastbourne - with security guards in attendance. The final transmission tape was kept under 24-hour surveillance.

It was decided that Hussey would be told the week before transmission - but only after Diana had herself told the Queen. Hussey responded to the news with fury and indignation, according to Birt. Hussey said later it was not for the BBC to involve itself in the "private problems of the royal family".

There was anger, too, outside the Corporation. The Daily Telegraph accused the BBC of betraying the trust of the monarch. William Rees-Mogg in the Times said that Birt should apologise - or go. Birt himself saw the episode as "the end of the BBC's institutional reverence - though not its respect - for the monarchy".


Martin Bashir interviewing Princess Diana
1997
News on the move
In 1997 BBC radio news journalists left Broadcasting House to join their TV colleagues in a purpose-built extension to Television Centre.

Home was now a huge open-plan area - with radio and television bulletins still on separate desks, but sharing a pool of reporters and correspondents. It was the culmination of the "bi-medial" policy pushed so strongly by director general John Birt since his arrival ten years earlier as deputy DG.

The project had not had an easy ride. It coincided with the expansion of the BBC news in the digital age, with 24 hour radio, television and Online news. This had placed enormous demands on both editorial staff and reporters - who were often struggling to meet more than one deadline.

As BBC Director of Radio Jenny Abramsky recalls, correspondents who were due to file for radio often found themselves stuck inside a TV edit van far from the action, and equally there were complaints from television editors about reporters meeting a multitude of radio deadlines rather than carefully crafting TV news reports.

Overall, the Birt reforms had undoubtedly brought a revolution in news. Correspondent John Simpson was of the opinion that Birt had transformed a "small, cosy purely national TV news service into a first-class international one". But the all-out commitment to bi-medial news was finally abandoned in 2000 - the year that Greg Dyke became DG.

The logistics of gathering the news are still managed centrally - across both media. But there are now separate Radio and TV news production departments. The new Radio News production department is also responsible for programming on World Service Radio which was handed over to BBC News by John Birt. During the past three years the output has been transformed from the traditional very formal news bulletins to a continuous news service which has grown in strength since the disaster of September 11th 2001.

In October 2000, it was announced that radio news would be moving back to Broadcasting House - and taking TV news with it. A "state of the art" news complex is due for completion by 2008.

The announcement brought immediate questions about the cost, so soon after radio's move to White City. But the BBC insisted that licence payers' money would not be involved.

The new centre will accommodate journalists from not only domestic radio and TV, but also World Service news and the BBC's online operation. Greg Dyke called it the start of a "new era" for Broadcasting House.


The BBC News Centre in West London
1997
BBC News embraces new media
BBC News became a tri-media provider of news in November 1997 with the launch of BBC News Online.

The internet news market in 1997 was far from deserted. CNN had already been out there for four years. According to the BBC journalist put in charge of the project, Bob Eggington, there was no choice as to whether the BBC should respond to the opportunities offered by the internet. The web was where young people were going, he said.

Prior to the launch of the full news service, BBC News had provided several smaller sites, staffed by just a handful of people working in one small room. The Budget in 1995 and the Olympics in 1996 were covered in association with the Press Association, before BBC News 'went solo' for the first time with the Budget in 1996 and then the General Election of 1997.

A post-election political site was expanded into more general news following the death of Princess Diana, when the still-small team had to build a site in a matter of hours after the news broke and also had to deal with the many thousands of emails sent in by people from all round the world.

It was not long before BBC News Online became the "most effective, admired and comprehensive news service in the world", according to then Director General John Birt. At the time of the launch, an article in the Times agreed that the service looked "pretty good" - but, since the BBC was also in the throws of expanding its TV output, asked the question as to whether "dear old Auntie, always regarded as a little dotty" had now gone "completely bats".

News Online has gone onto to become the most popular news site outside of America. It has won every major award available including a prestigious Webby award for Best News site.


An early News Online story page
1997
TV news goes digital
Just one week after the launch of BBC News Online, TV audiences in Britain acquired a BBC continuous news service of their own.

BBC News 24 began as the Corporation's first digital channel on November 9th 1997. At 6pm, the launch presenter Gavin Esler opened with the words "Hello, and welcome for the first time to BBC News 24",

The style of presentation at launch also heralded a departure from the established norm. The emphasis was on informality and accessibility with a line up of younger presenters, jargon free language and, for the first time in BBC news history, jacketless presenters.

The launch was difficult, according to current head of Television News Roger Mosey. Staff had been reduced to "gibbering digital wrecks" by the "over ambitious use of new technology", he recalled.

The softer approach to the news was reversed after two years later when the channel was relaunched. Shirtsleeves disappeared and a more formal set introduced. The BBC said the channel was being "brought into line with the rest of our news output".

A report commissioned by the Department for Culture in 2002 said the performance of News 24 was "satisfactory in all areas, and more than that in some" - but there was also some criticism. The response from the BBC included a commitment to a "more analytical and international news agenda".

Audiences to News 24 coverage reached and all-time high during the War in Iraq. With simulcasting on BBC One and BBC Two, the service was watched by 23 million people on one day alone.


Gavin Esler and Sarah Montague


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