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Donna Edmunds: By axing some of its World Service transmissions, the BBC will be failing many in their greatest moment of need

Donna Edmunds is a Fellow at Progressive Vision.

Last time you went abroad, did you notice that people the world over seem to treat us Brits with a certain measure of respect not necessarily afforded to all other nationalities? To be a Brit abroad is to receive an open-armed, open-doored welcome in to the businesses, and sometimes the homes of strangers abroad. Ever wondered why that might be?

Of course there was a time, not so long ago, when Britain was top dog. We ranged across the world leaving our mark wherever we went. People admired our stoicism and ability to drink tea in almost any circumstance. But a great deal of this respect was also gained through our BBC broadcasts into the homes of millions; in a multitude of languages, the words “This is London” held great resonance.  

My mother’s family was just one of countless many who would covertly listen to Voice of America and the BBC World Service for a reliable account of what was happening within their own country. She recalls that, whilst a coup or other national disaster was taking place, the state media would show ballet for hours on end – even as recently as 1986 when the Chernobyl disaster struck. “In fact”, she says “it got to the stage where, if you turned on the TV and ballet was on, you’d know that something was up.” At which point the TV would be turned off and the family would retreat to the back room to huddle around the Bakelite radio, turned down so that it was barely audible, and tune into the World Service.   

Those radio broadcasts were carried to her and the family on short wave radio transmissions originating from transmitters located on British soil. Next month, the BBC plans to decommission those transmitters.
The Berlin Wall has fallen and the Soviet Bloc has broken up, but the World Service continues to be a reliable and trusted media source for millions of people worldwide. Its audience figures are 50% higher than those of its leading competitors, and until 2009 were rising – from 120 million in 1993 to a record high of 188 million. But in 2010 those figures dropped by 20 million, due, in part, to the rolling back of the short wave service.

The BBC justifies its axing of these transmissions because, it argues, demand from audiences for better quality output has prompted a move to FM broadcasting (from offices located in the target countries, staffed by nationals), and the internet. This demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of the local conditions – and indeed of the very need for a World Service style broadcasting service.

The FM model was used within Russia. Located in Moscow, the experience there was that the output was comparable to state media, either because the staff were loyal to the state or because journalists were intimidated into toeing the line. Some sources within Russia estimate that up to 200 journalists have been killed, right up to the present day. 

Meanwhile, BBC bigwigs who loftily assert that young people prefer their radio to arrive via the internet look rather foolish when one considers the experience of Egypt in the last couple of weeks. On 25th January protestors took to the streets of Cairo. Within three days the internet had been shut down. I watched Sky News during this timeframe when they showed a split screen – Sky News cameras showing burning cars and rioting people, Egyptian news channels showing live shots of a peaceful cityscape, apparently filmed just a few hundred yards up the road. If the internet is the only means of accessing the World Service, then the BBC is failing these people precisely at their greatest moment of need.

Of course radio waves can be jammed, but it’s much harder to do that than it is to flick a switch and cut the net. In other words, the BBC plans to dispose of what would be the only means of transmitting independent broadcasts to countries in turmoil. The infrastructure required to transmit those broadcasts is large, set up on deeply rural patches of land within the UK, sheep grazing peacefully underneath the benevolently broad stance of the steel structures. Cheap to run, once dismantled it would be hugely costly to re-commission them. 

My grandmother eventually escaped Soviet rule and came to England with my mother in the early 1970s. Over the next few years she worked up the food chain in the BBC, and eventually became a producer, researcher, editor, and presenter of her very own award-winning programme on the BBC World Service, racking up about 20 years of service within the BBC. Over that time I visited her many times and watched as the role of Bush House diminished, the corridors and studios becoming increasingly worn and outdated, its staff increasingly sidelined, paid a tiny fraction of the salary granted its home audience stars, for working longer hours and arguably doing more important work.

I don’t know why the BBC seems to have adopted a dismissive view of the World Service. Perhaps it’s the grip of embarrassment over what is seen as the ‘mistake’ of the Empire by the left. Perhaps it’s the same anti-nationalistic tendency as that which pervades all things EU (for what could be more nationalistic than announcing ‘This is London’?). Perhaps it’s another manifestation of the strange view held by the left that Britain has had her day and ought to slink off quietly, to know her place, presumably inspired by the idea that all cultures are equally valid, and that we ought not impose our views on others. But the outcome is the degeneration of Britain’s standing in the world, which has disastrous implications – for business between us and other countries, and, perhaps more crucially, for the citizens within those countries.

If the events in the Middle East over the last few weeks have shown us anything, it’s that the people of these states are crying out for freedom and democracy. They can see how lucky we are to enjoy those freedoms, even if we cannot. The BBC ought at least to offer them a channel on which to access the outside world when they are struggling against the oppressive regimes that dominate their worlds.

I have written to William Hague and Jeremy Hunt to urge them to hold the BBC to account on the decommissioning of the transmitters, and I urge you to do the same (don’t forget to copy your local MP into the letter).


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