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40 years of The World Tonight

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Alistair Burnett Alistair Burnett | 10:00 UK time, Monday, 5 April 2010

At the beginning of April 1970, Nasa was preparing the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission for launch and the BBC was preparing to launch The World Tonight.

I was a starry-eyed 10-year-old collecting Apollo transfers to stick on the end of my bed and obsessed with space exploration, but at the BBC the bosses were thinking of other things - they wanted a late-evening news programme for Radio 4 listeners, starting to air on 6 April, which would cover international news and take a more analytical approach to the day's events .

Forty years on, The World Tonight is still doing just that. The daily task we set ourselves is to try to make sense of what's happening in Britain and the world for our audience who - our listener numbers suggest - want to know what's going on in the world and why.

Robin Lustig

We set out to go behind the headlines and explore issues in depth.

We also aim to spot emerging trends in global events, so when they do become headlines, our audience are, we hope, better placed to make sense of them.

I remember, after the war between Georgia and Russia broke out in August 2008, a senior BBC manager came by the programme desk and said "at least your listeners will know where South Ossetia is". That's because we had been reporting on the rising tension in the region which followed the decision of major Western powers to recognise the independence of Kosovo early in the year.

The world we report has changed out of recognition following the end of the Cold War 20 years ago.

In April 1970, Richard Nixon was President of the United States. His country was locked in a hot war in Vietnam and a cold war with the Soviet Union.

The Americans were sending men to the moon

China was pretty much closed off to the world and still ruled by Chairman Mao.

But in other ways, things have not changed so much.

We've pulled together some classic clips from the big stories of the last 40 years. Take a look and you'll see that some of the issues the programme covered in the first few years are still with us today - the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians; the division of Cyprus; how to govern Northern Ireland fairly. Interestingly, all can be seen as ethno-religious disputes over territory.

And in the past 20 years since the end of the Cold War, such conflicts have become a major driver of the events we've covered.

Whole countries have disappeared from the map - think USSR and Yugoslavia - while other states still exist on the map but have either failed or are in state of extreme fragility - think Somalia, Afghanistan and Pakistan - and again ethno-religious conflict is central to their problems.

Why is this of interest in a media landscape where much coverage has become more local in focus and the news agenda has broadened to include coverage of the lives and loves of celebrities?

The number of our listeners suggests it is of interest. The way radio audiences are measured has changed dramatically over the years, so direct comparisons with 40 years ago aren't possible, but in the past decade we have seen the audience rise to hit a record last year of 1.8 million a week, which tells me there is an appetite for serious coverage of global affairs.

We continue to take seriously parts of the world not much covered elsewhere. Over the past year, our presenters have reported on the drugs war from Mexico, the end of one party domination from Japan, what's holding back development from India, and most recently, from the emerging power of Brazil.

Some key moments stand out.

Given the time of transmission, The World Tonight was well placed to cover the Watergate crisis and established its reputation early on covering the historic demise of the Nixon presidency.

Our presenter Robin Lustig was in Moscow when the USSR bit the dust; in Hong Kong when it was returned to China and in Washington when Barack Obama became the first black American to be elected president.

It's not been all plain sailing. As a live news programme, we've had our fair share of bloopers - a special programme from Nigeria on the first democratic election following the fall of the military junta in 1999 lasted just a few seconds before the line to Abuja went down, not to return.

Then there was the time we put a French union leader live on air without checking if he could speak English - one of the shortest interviews in the programme's history.

Though the programme has remained true to its original agenda, in another way things have changed radically.

The first edition of the programme was broadcast live on the radio and if you missed it, you missed it.

Robin Lustig and Ritula ShahToday we are on the radio and the internet. If you miss it at 10pm on Radio 4, you can catch up for a week on the iPlayer.

The programme has a webpage including a blog on current events and stories we cover. Listeners can see pictures of reporting trips on Flickr.

Presenters Robin Lustig and Ritula Shah also communicate directly with the audience through the blog and Facebook, and Robin sends a weekly e-mail newsletter to listeners who subscribe.

Douglas StuartAs for the next 40 years, well I hope I'll still be listening, however the programme is broadcast, just as our launch presenter, Douglas Stuart is still listening today, 40 years after he first said "This is The World Tonight...".

On Monday 5 April, we're doing a special edition of the programme. We'll be looking back at the stories we covered in the first days of The World Tonight and look at how they have moved on - among the stories we'll be looking at are Northern Ireland, the rise and fall of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and we'll also have an interview with the first presenter of the programme, Douglas Stuart.

Alistair Burnett is the editor of The World Tonight.


  • Comment number 1.

    Mr. Burnett:

    Thanks, for the excellent blog regarding the Anniversary of The World Tonight...And, my best wishes for another many years.....

    (Dennis Junior)

  • Comment number 2.

    This is a rubbish blog posting, what is anyone supposed to say apart from well done ?

  • Comment number 3.

    It is a good analytical politics show, but news is far more than the mouthings of politicians. Did the launch and dramatic rescue of Apollo 13 actually get mentioned on the show? (Being likewise a 10-year-old space-mad child at the time, I had more important things than politics to worry about!)

  • Comment number 4.

    Well done. However, it's a shame there isn't much reporting international reporting of a similar quality on the television. Occasionally I happen to catch Eorpa and think that, despite requiring subtitles for people who don't speak Gaelic, it should really be broadcast to the UK rather than just a Scottish audience.

  • Comment number 5.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 6.

    Whilst I am sure you have done wonders to cover and present all the above stated things, I cannot help but feel somewhat cheated over the last few months by the BBC News team in general over a total lack of coverage of the biggest upheaval to our copyright legislation in years.

    Not once is Clause 43 of the Digital Economy Bill mentioned anywhere on the BBC news site. This clause, of this somewhat far fetched bill, will allow for image theft to take place on a huge scale, with no protection for image producers in the UK or elsewhere. Given the BBC has itself just come under attack with the Labour party election campaign posters using the Ashes to Ashes images, I would have expected a even a modicum of intellectual coverage of a clause of a bill that will hand formal Copyright Legislation over to a single individual, namely the Secretary of State.

    So, once again, well done on all the above, but poor show of the topics that really impact here everyday, everynight, in the UK. I for one feel I cannot trust the BBC to present a fair view of the news and critical topics anymore. If you aren't reporting on this issue, perhaps as you are signed up supporters of it, then what else are you not telling me?

  • Comment number 7.

    Getting back on topic... Alistair, any chance of making the anniversary edition (5 April) an "archive edition" and not limited to the usual 7 days iPlayer limit?

  • Comment number 8.

    [Unsuitable/Broken URL removed by Moderator] Thanks for the article, it took me 40 years before. I realised how mankind evolved these time. And I'll be watching the programme with my eyes wide open.


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