The cutting of a trusted voice:
BBC World Service
Associate since 1991
Comments directly to
February 1, 2011
The late Walter Lippmann, the greatest of all American newspaper columnists, mocked America’s efforts to broadcast overseas. The broadcasts, he wrote, “were no more than singing songs, cracking jokes, entertaining the kiddies”.
No influential voice, to my knowledge, has made such a criticism of the BBC’s World Service. No one has derided it as an “Orwellian Ministry of Truth”. It has evolved over the years as an institution that, while not promoting an official ideology, has been able to project to the outside world the best of British journalistic talents - informed analysis, variety of comment and sharpness and accuracy of reporting. It entertertains too, with discernment.
We can see it at its best now, covering the events in Egypt and Tunisia. Along with its television counterpart, BBC World, it is reporting the turbulence with a detached but well informed eye. Unlike Al-Jazeera, the ebulent, Qatar-based station that often wears its convictions on its sleeve, the BBC aims for impartiality and objectivity.
BBC executives point to the situation that arose at the time of the overthrow of the Shah of Iran. The Shah had a long standing hostility to the BBC. His father was convinced that the BBC had been instrumental in his fall. The Shah used every lever he had to bring pressure on the BBC to make sure there would not be a repeat of his father’s experience. The Foreign Office informed the BBC that it regarded their broadcasts as unhelpful. The BBC stood firm, and broadcasting continued unchanged in its editorial content.
There is an interesting footnote to this story. Some time after the fall of the Shah, David Owen, the foreign secretary, confided to me that he was pleased the BBC had not heeded his department’s pressure. “After all”, he said, “the BBC was my insurance policy”.
Despite the World Service’s many achievements the relatively new British government of Prime Minister David Cameron is wielding the axe. It is introducing budget cuts across the board. Whilst protecting the anachronistic nuclear deterrent that costs billions of dollars, it is salami slicing bits here and there of the World Service. The notion that “soft power” is more powerful than “hard power” does not enter the minds of the Conservative government. John Tusa, a former managing director of the World Service, has called the cuts “bad, bad, bad”.
The BBC’s hard-won journalistic strength, which over the years many news organisations have sought to emulate, is based in part on its political detachment, and in part on having the resources to be truly a world broadcasting organisation, attracting the best talent, able to put reporters on the spot fast and, not least, able to reach an audience that spans the globe. It cannot afford to be fickle, switching on and switching off its budget and foreign language services depending on short term political movements.
Imagine if the BBC had cut its Russian service before the events when the president of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, was deposed by a coup. Stranded in his holiday home on the Black Sea with his family, his phone was cut, his car impounded and exits closed. His son-in-law found tucked away an old radio set. He rigged up an antenna with a piece of wire and tuned into the BBC Russian service and they followed events in Moscow. The coup was thwarted by the military and the future president of Russia, Boris Yeltsin.
When Gorbachev gave his first post-coup press conference the person he selected for the first question was the BBC’s correspondent.
Not only its Russian language service is to go. So is its Mandarin service. The Albanian, Macedonian and Serbian language services likewise. They couldn’t have chosen a more important list of language services if they tried.
Unlike the rest of the BBC the World Service is funded by a Foreign Office grant and thus in theory is subject to government policies. By and large it resists the political pressures and because of its place in the BBC family it has the muscle to stand up to the Foreign Office. But cuts in its budget it can do little about. 650 jobs might go.
The World Service has been ordered to cut 16% from its budget, a significant amount. Meanwhile, the Chinese are increasing their overseas transmissions and a host of other countries in recent years have started up theirs. Taiwan, for example, wants to demonstrate how different from China it is with its democracy and free press.
Sadly, Mr Cameron, like Mrs Margaret Thatcher before him, believes in cuts rather than soft power.
Copyright © 2011 Jonathan
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