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BUSH DIARY (from BBC Worldwide magazine, July 1994)

Ian Richardson, News Development Editor of BBC World Service Television [later re-named BBC World News], reflects on the project to launch an Arabic-language television network for World Service, and during a break in Australia, retraces his life before the BBC:

Ian Richardson

For most of this year my life is being dominated by the commitment to launch an Arabic-language satellite television channel for BBC World Service Television [later renamed BBC World News] and its commercial partners, Orbit Communications. By any project definition, this is A Big One -- bigger perhaps than the launch just a few years ago of the English-language News and Information Channel. I view the project with a mixture of excitement and apprehension.

I like project work. I lost my enthusiasm for the treadmill of a newsroom desk several years ago. These days the nearest I get to maintaining my writing skills is the issuing of memos, the writing of letters to my family in Australia and the occasional contribution to Worldwide magazine. Project work -- specially anything to do with World Service Television News -- gives me the chance to live dangerously. Screw up a project and you're professionally dead.

The Arabic project allows me not just to keep the adrenalin flowing, but to stimulate the brain cells in an attempt to keep up with the pace of modern broadcasting. To be honest, there have been some meetings where I have barely understood a word being said. The language of television technology is complex and splattered with acronyms and colloquial short-forms. If I were to tell you that I had seen Hal, Henry, Harry and Big Ted, it would be reasonable to assume that they are all chaps I know. Wrong. They are sophisticated bits of new technology that help get our television programmes on the air.

Though I love television -- this is my second stint in the medium -- I still pine at times for the simplicity of radio. It is a medium that allows programme to be put to air by the single flick of a switch and entire news and current affairs programmes to be assembled by a handful of people working quietly in a corner.

Television is expensive, horrendously complicated and very labour intensive. A relatively simple news transmission can require the undivided attention of 30 or more people. It takes just one person to miss a cue or push the wrong button and the entire programme can be wrecked. Television, therefore, is a medium that requires team players. It is no place for the uncommunicative loner.

Getting the Arabic news channel on air is akin to organising a marathon in which every runner joins at a different point in the race, yet has to cross the finishing line at the same time as everyone else. Runners who fall or lose their way can spell doom for the entire project.

I am consequently extremely grateful to be working alongside a number of enthusiastic and enormously talented people, not least World Service Television's Head of Resources, Tony Troughton.

Tony is now something of a rare bird in the new streamlined BBC. He has an almost unparallelled accumulation of television experience enhanced by great lateral thinking skills and the kind of wisdom that money alone cannot buy. He is, in my view, a genius.

Tony has been to hell and back with several of us over the past few years. He knows that the things that help keep you sane as a project manager are a determination to keep your efforts sharply focused, a mutual support system with some trusted colleagues, and an ability to resort to humour, often dark humour, when things go wrong, as they inevitably do. There is a proverbial window ledge on TV Centre's top floor. Tony and I inhabit it from time to time when the going gets rough. We try to avoid being out there together, just in case there is no-one around to pull us back inside.

If I sometimes find it a battle to keep up with the arcane language of my technical colleagues, shed a tear for me when it comes to Arabic. I have never been a linguist. I attempted French at school in my homeland, Australia, but was a signal failure. My kindly head master suggested I might more usefully divert my pathetic efforts to a supplementary course on The History of Australia and the Pacific. I have never recovered from that experience.

Though I can never hope to accumulate more than a few phrases of Arabic -- after all, next year I will have moved onto another project, or been fired for failing to deliver this one properly -- I find the whole idea of pan-Arabic broadcasting an utterly fascinating achievement. While the written Arabic is more or less the same everywhere, the spoken language varies enormously from country to country. The only language common to the populations across the region is Classical Arabic. This is understood by most Arabs, but correctly spoken by very few. It is as though Britain were back a century or two, with each region having its own dialect, not understood anywhere else, and with the only common language being something like Shakesperean English.

But enough of the Arabic Project for the moment.

During the long, frustrating hiatus while the Arab contract was being finalised with WSTV's commercial partners, I made the sort of decision that can ruin a chap's career: I decided to go on holiday in Australia. The airline tickets -- no refunds permitted -- arrived on the day the deal is finally signed. Rotten timing, but I decide to go anyway. It may be the last decent break I get for the rest of the year.

BANGKOK: I hate long-distance flying, so I always try to break the journey to and from Australia. Bangkok is ideal because it is roughly halfway between London and Melbourne. It is also less boring than Singapore, which is little more than a giant shopping mall. Everyone complains about the traffic in Bangkok, though it doesn't seem any worse than in London on an average weekday.

My first action on being delivered to my hotel room is to switch on the television set for a fix of World Service Television News. One of our newest presenters, Katy Haswell, is in sparkling form, never once betraying the fact that it is the early hours of the morning in London, a time when sensible people are fast asleep.

It is important to be able to view our bulletins away from the newsroom in London, because it is the nearest one can come to judging how they must look and sound to our viewers. Something that seems just right when viewed in an editing suite in Television Centre can come across as either patronising or incomplete when seen on the other side of the world.

That evening, I dine with our long-standing Bangkok correspondent, Neil Kelly, and his wife, Nangnoi. This can be dangerous. The previous time I had dinner in Bangkok with Neil, the delightful spicy food encouraged us to drink rather more of the potent local beer that common sense would dictate. Although I will always claim that my brain was as clear as it ever likely to be, it was difficult to explain how I got halfway to the airport before realising that my passport, cash and airline tickets were still awaiting collection from my hotel safe deposit box.

MELBOURNE: Melbourne is a charming city. The harbour cannot match Sydney's, but the city has a cheerful, confident feel about it. The city centre could, from a distance, be just about any prosperous capital in the world, but it is surrounded by inner suburbs with some fine early Australian architecture and attractive modern homes on spacious plots in wide tree-lined avenues. It is the city where my mother, brother and two sisters live, and it is always enjoyable to catch up with family developments. A further attachment to the city comes from my five years in the newsroom at Radio Melbourne 3AW, where I first worked with Johan Ramsland, now editor of World Service Television and my boss. [Johan died in November 1996].

CHARLTON: I have felt compelled to re-visit the town where I grew up and started my career in journalism. Charlton is a typically ordinary bush town straddling the Avoca River in the sheep and wheat belt of Central Victoria. Australians describe such places with a mixture of affection and derision as "one-horse" towns, meaning that there are few people and few facilities. But it is full of memories. Most are good, but there are sad ones too.

My family moved to Charlton from neighbouring St Arnaud during the Second World War after my Scots-born father, John, bought the "local rag". This is the slang name given by Australians to their local community newspapers. My dad was thrilled to be proprietor and editor of the Charlton Tribune. And he was particularly proud of running the first weekly newspaper in the State of Victoria to routinely include photographs. "The Trib" had a saturation circulation of just 1000 copies, but combined with the profits from the associated printing business, it provided the family with a modest living.

My father died after a long battle against cancer. I was 16 and found myself suddenly an adult, helping my mother, Rena, run the business. She was a woman of immense determination. Indeed, by the time I was in my late teens, she had not just kept the business going while trying to bring up four children, but had bought two newspapers based in the neighbouring town of Quambatook:, the Quambatook Times (circulation: 500) and the Manangatang Courier (circulation: 200). She had also started a third paper, The News, in nearby Wycheproof. And so it was that I became editor of the Quambatook and Manangatang papers as I turned 20. I was also the chief reporter, the linotype operator and the head printer. In other words, it was just me and an equally-young office assistant, Nancy Bibby [later, Nancy McNaughton] -- plus the local grocer, Tom Hogan, who doubled as part-time reporter.

En route to my pilgrimage to Charlton, I had stopped over in the old gold mining city of Ballarat where Christine and Alan Bett, old friends from my days in Quambatook, now live. We recalled the evenings spent in the ramshackle Times office, since demolished, listening to the hit parades on radio and discussing how we might put the world's ills right, or simply arguing the relative merits of such pop classics as Good Night Irene and Blue Suede Shoes. One thing we never considered was the possibility that one day I would work for the BBC World Service. I would have been too ludicrous a thought.

Much has now changed in Charlton. The house where we lived behind the "old" Tribune office lies in ruins. The shed where we used to play is no more. The large peppercorn and almond trees have gone and so have the prickly pear cactus plants.

Further down the wide main street is what used to be the "new" Tribune office, where my Dad moved the business before he died. It is now a frock shop, and the only indication of its history is the faded sign above the verandah stretching out over the footpath. The new owners cheerfully allow me to inspect the empty back rooms, and I am able to identify the former locations of the photographic darkroom and the typesetting and printing presses. As for the Tribune itself, it became the victim of the changing economic climate in newspaper publishing and was incorporated into a regional weekly, North-Central News, based in St Arnaud.

A visit to 10 Peel Street shows the home of my teenage years still in good shape, but the chicken (or "chook") pens are gone. So has the shed where I used to make all sorts of electrical gadgets and the mulberry tree which provided the leaves to feed my silkworms. And I notice, too, that the big hedge at the front of the house has been removed. A pity. I am reminded that the hedge had hollow areas inside and that it was where I once had a very modest introduction to sex from An Older Woman. She could not have been more than 13, but as she was in the class above me at the local school, she seemed wonderfully well informed and sophisticated. A Woman of the World. Anyway, we agreed that if she showed me what passed for her breasts, I would let her look into my shorts. I remember it as a somewhat disappointing experience. But I fear my disappointment was nothing to hers.

BENDIGO: Bendigo is fine provincial city is where I moved into broadcasting, working as a reporter for the unfortunately-named Radio 3BO, then under the editorship of a talented and wonderfully-unpredictable journalist, David Horsfall. It is also where I met Rosemary, my lovely wife and best friend of more than 25 years, at the Carlos and Rosita Ballroom. Carlos and Rosita were archetypal ballroom dancing teachers, stiff and aloof, and I always suspected that their names were really something more prosaic like Jack and Mary.

Both 3BO and the local Australian Broadcasting Corporation station interview me about the Arabic project. Australia is rather a long way from the Middle East, but the BBC brand name still makes the project worthy of a news item, specially when a local Aussie is involved.

SYDNEY: I am here in this spectacular city for a family wedding held in the open in a pretty park overlooking the harbour. I also take the opportunity to catch up with our local correspondents, Red Harrison and Mike Peschardt. Red and his wife, Pamela or "Pammie", have me to lunch at their rural property beside the Camden Airfield, once owned by Pammie's parents. It is difficult to believe that this tranquil location is just an hour's drive from the heart of one of the world's great cities. Though it is not necessary for either Red or Pammie to go into town every day, or even every week, both believe in the discipline of "going to work". In this case, it involves a stroll of probably no more than 100 metres to a former airfield hut where Red has his computer and broadcasting equipment and where Pammie does her writing on horticulture. The hut sits in the middle of a green field with sheep quietly grazing.

Incidentally, Red is not his proper name, though he's been known as that since his youth. He doesn't much care for his real name and his friends who know what it is are sworn to secrecy.

LONDON: Refreshed and back at base on the sixth floor of Television Centre, my stack of mail includes a fan letter. On perusal, it proves as always to be intended for a different and rather more famous Ian Richardson, the TV actor who played the main character in the hugely-successful House of Cards and To Play a King. In this case, the letter is from someone who seems to believe that the fictional Frances Urquhart is a real person. The writer kindly offers information about the Urquhart family. I post it off to my namesake who, by now, has become used to receiving mail via my office.

As for the Arab project, I find things have been a moving forward apace, thanks to the efforts of my colleagues. Excitement is mounting. We now have a studio, a location has been confirmed upstairs for the new newsroom, and a launch date has been set.

But problems -- some predictable, some not -- are still with us. Not least are the difficulties of getting all our new staff in place at the right time, and of ensuring that our new computer and digital editing equipment is not just installed but working properly.

I hear that Tony Troughton is out on the window ledge again. I had better go drag him back inside. From the look of some of the problems gathering on my desk, it will be my turn out there tomorrow.

...

Ian D. Richardson