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Nick Clarke

While a series of personal view programmes, which is a long-running fixture in the schedules, has no need to give equal time to every relevant point of view on each subject covered, there must be a sufficiently broad range of views from a wide variety of perspectives within a series.

Letter From America: a personal view - by Nick Clarke, Presenter of The World at One on Radio 4. He published Alistair Cooke, The Biography in 1999.

Letter from America is a cultural institution. The first radio programme was broadcast in March 1946, although Alistair Cooke had been urging the BBC to give him a slot for many years before that.

Having fallen in love with his adopted country, Cooke became convinced that there was a vital job to be done - explaining to a British audience that there was much more to America than the brash, self-satisfied nation portrayed by Hollywood. Once the war was over, the BBC finally agreed.

Unique reporting

From the start, Cooke developed an intriguing blend of political reporting and cultural insights. Much of what he described about the American way of life was fresh and new - from the sexual reputation of the ice delivery-man, to the damage caused by clothes-eating moths.

Letter from America, spanning nearly 60 years, represents a unique running commentary on post-war American history.

Cooke's reputation grew steadily, not just in Britain but - thanks to the World Service - across the English-speaking world.

Editorial independence

His highly individual approach thrived, nurtured by the BBC's commitment to editorial independence.

Sometimes this has been uncomfortable for his employers, but Cooke has never been one to trim his views to suit anyone else, and that has imbued his work with a special sort of integrity, a point clearly recognised by his legion of fans.

To begin with, managers back in London would watch Cooke's output closely, and relay their comments and criticisms to his producer in New York, but as time went on, he became more and more a law unto himself.

By the 1960s, with hundreds of programmes under Cooke's belt, producers began to play an increasingly subordinate role in the process, and only the bravest risked commenting on what he chose to say.

One Radio 4 controller said wryly that anyone flying to New York to bring the Letter to an end would be shot down by Cooke's fans.

At the age of 94, he regards the Letter as a mission for life.

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