Sharing Discussing Understanding

Commonwealth Journalists' Association

By Zina Rohan
“If it’s not fun, what the hell is the point?” John Tusa, speaking to the Commonwealth Journalists’ Association on 6th March, was talking about his new book Making a Noise: Getting it Right, Getting it Wrong, in front of an audience largely composed of ex-BBC World Service staff.

The occasion was, therefore, something of a love-in, because Tusa’s time as Managing Director there between 1986 and 1992 is looked back on by many as something of a golden age.

Although he was a well-known current affairs television presenter, running Bush House was the first managerial job that Tusa had ever done.

What made him think, when he applied for it, that he was qualified? First of all, he said, he knew what the External Services (as the World Service was then known) were about, having started his BBC career there as a graduate trainee; he had liked its ethos and its intent. Also, as the son of Czech emigres who spoke broken English to the end of their days, he was used to the voices of foreigners, and liked them. But he had also thought that the BBC was badly run and after years of complaining about the ‘boss class’, felt it was time to try and run it better, and make the External Services what they wanted to be.

His refrain would be that you cannot change an institution unless you love it, and management by consent and mutual respect is the only way to get things done.

Crucially, in the very first months he was able to introduce a new budgeting system that saved the World Service £1.5 million. The saving had been demanded by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in return for a £100 million new audibility programme. The different departments were prepared to surrender parts of their budgets because they themselves had identified which bits to cut.

The audience heard how John Tusa’s father had managed a factory of 3000 people, and that it had been his habit to ‘walk the factory’ at least once a week, to see what was going on and to get to know his staff. ‘It’s not difficult to walk around,’ Tusa said, acknowledging that his father’s practice may have influenced him. So, he ate regularly in the canteen, along with everyone else, joining a different table every time. He was also editorially involved, and would quietly appear in a studio while a programme was being transmitted, and if he liked what he had heard he would send a note to the producer, rather badly typed, telling them so.

In his book he writes that ‘the External Services could only escape being just another “government broadcaster” because it was part of the BBC under the BBC’s Charter. This was the guarantee of our journalistic independence, of our freedom from Foreign Office editorial interference.’ Meanwhile, foreign correspondents were particularly happy to work with Bush House because they knew that most of their listeners were abroad.
Did he think the job had changed, he was asked from the floor, with the difficulties of pursuing truth at a time of disinformation? John Tusa said he was reluctant to preach to practising journalists – but then proceeded to say what he thought anyway. ‘Fake news is lies,’ he declared. ‘Let’s be clear about that. It’s more important than ever that journalists should be disciplined. Public trust in journalism is down because some of the trade practices are less observed now than they were earlier.’

This takes us back to his application for the post of managing director in 1982, when he defined the approach of the external services to providing news as ‘a full statement of facts, analysis untrammelled by ideology and a readiness to examine critically claims and statements no matter who or what their source may be.’

CJA India