In a small fishing port on Hainan Island, a middle-school student approached me years ago and hesitantly bade me good morning. Under the bamboos and coconuts of China's tropical isle, we chatted. Where had he learned such good English? 'Sir,' he replied, 'the BBC.' He is not alone. The World Service of the British Broadcasting Corporation is a friend to millions. It extends a welcome voice and a helping hand, a guiding light and a reliable beacon to every corner of the planet. It is possibly Britain's most important last remaining international asset. Politicians may be mistrusted, the Crown may have lost its lustre, football hooligans stand as dubious symbols of the New Britain and even the roast beef of Olde England is now suspect. But throughout every travail there has always been one national institution which has stood unchallenged and an icon of pride. There is nothing on the airways that possibly rivals the excellence and reliability of the BBC World Service. Now that sole example of British genius has been gutted. In a short-sighted decision, a craven board of governors seems ready to rubberstamp a decision by the chief executive John Birt to torpedo the independence of the globe's best radio service. What's going on? Mr Birt, one-time whiz kid of weekend television in Britain, has been director-general of the BBC for several controversial years. His policies have made him unpopular with journalists and other broadcasting professionals; nothing wrong with that because few could argue that prim and proper Auntie, as the BBC is known, didn't need a good kick up her stuffed shirt. What he now plans, however, is a scheme to diminish the independence and autonomy of BBC radio and the English-language World Service. Under the new proposals, the independent World Service bulletins will be issued by the Home Service. For Britons living in Britain, this is a good, staple diet. But it means people in Rio de Janeiro, Lagos and Xiamen will listen bemused to items about the church fete in Little-Titmouse-on-the-Trent. This may seem no big deal to Mr Birt as he shuffles his papers in London. But to people like my young acquaintance on Hainan and to millions of other listeners throughout Asia, it is vital. This is not merely a matter that concerns media types. A couple of weeks ago, without provocation, an old friend raised the matter. He is an American businessman in Hong Kong who was in the United States military. He recalled how when he was stationed in Danang in Vietnam, the city came under attack. What did he do to find out what was happening? He turned on the BBC World Service. 'They're not really going to change it?' he asked me. Yes, if Mr Birt gets his way. Can't the prime minister step in to stop such a move? Does John Major know? Does he care? Has he taken no heed of the rising wave of opposition to this notion? Who can tell. What can the rest of us do? For a start, we can send a tirade of letters and faxes to MPs, to British newspapers and to friends imploring that the World Service be left alone to continue its quest for excellence on the airways. I have huddled in the frigid misery of Manchurian winters under piles of furs and blankets with my shortwave radio bringing me the quiet voice of sanity from the studios in London. Millions listen to bulletins of impartial and honest news. Here, like the sun rising and the tides ebbing, is something enduring. On Indonesian islands and at the gateway to Antarctica, I have tuned in to the BBC. Here is the rock of truth in an uncertain world. Even in countries with a free press and a familiar language, the BBC stands alone. How can one compare the often trite and ethnocentric spoutings of CNN, for instance, with the solid, sober intelligence of the Beeb? You can't. But now that excellence stands in dire threat of the accountants' pen and an arbitrary ruling by bureaucracy. If there is in British public life any responsibility to answer an overwhelming and clear call by the people, then Mr Major should instruct the board of governors of the BBC to veto this retrograde move. It is a bad policy. It will wreck a valuable institution and will destroy one of the last remaining shreds of credibility Britain enjoys in Asia. It will sadly diminish British standing. And it will deprive millions of listeners around the world of their one link to the plain, unvarnished truth.