The last broadcasts to a wider world


Regarded as a treasure by millions in often desolate regions, the BBC’s World Service is facing the cold winds of cutbacks and changing ambitions, writes MARK HENNESSY,London Editor

FOR NEARLY 90 years, the BBC World Service has spoken to the world from its headquarters in Bush House on The Strand in London, but an air of despondency now fills its corridors.

In that time, the World Service has given the UK a unique form of “soft power”, where the station’s “This is London” opening introduction to news bulletins has been regarded as a byword for accuracy and impartiality.

Now, however, it must save £46 million (€54.2m) from its £253 million (€298.4m) annual budget following government funding cuts, with five language services to be axed and shortwave broadcasts curtailed. Six hundred jobs are to go, while the station’s unique identity faces further threat once the long-delayed transfer to the BBC’s new headquarters in central London takes place, where it is to be merged more with the rest of the Corporation’s news operations. Services in Portuguese for African listeners and in Serbian ended yesterday, while the Albanian service disappears on Monday; services for the Caribbean, Russia, China, and Vietnam will be gone by the end of March.

In recent years, BBC executives have slowly pared down the World Service’s shortwave transmissions in all languages, arguing that shortwave is “a dying concept” in the world of the internet. However, shortwave, unlike the internet, is difficult for dictators to jam, as was shown during the Egyptian crisis earlier this month, when the Mubarak regime all but closed down the internet in a flailing attempt to survive.

The move away from shortwave continues, with services in Indonesian, Kyrgyz, Nepali, Swahili and Hindi going by the end of March, though services for the Congo have earned a last-minute reprieve. Shortwave broadcasts in English will face a “phased reduction”.

The decisions are not popular, with leading Indian intellectuals such as authors Arundhati Roy and Vikram Seth, historian Ram Guha and the BBC’s own legendary former India correspondent, Sir Mark Tully, expressing dismay. The Hindi service, they said in an open letter, “has been a credible source of unbiased and accurate information, especially in times of crisis: the 1971 war, the emergency in 1975, the communal riots after the demolition of the Ayodhya mosque in 1992”.

“Ten million listeners in India – most of them in rural and often very poor areas – need BBC Hindi radio and the accurate, impartial and independent news it provides,” they went on, adding that shortwave is available where other media are not. “[It is] an essential source of learning for schoolchildren and college students in rural India preparing for competitive exams; and they cannot be silenced in times when democracy is under threat,” they said.

Audience figures dropped by 20 million in 2010, partly on the back of earlier shortwave curbs, but also, it must be acknowledged, from greater competition from newer broadcasters, such as satellite TV news channel al-Jazeera.Nevertheless, it still reached 160 million people weekly via its 32 language services, while a further 17 million tuned into BBC World TV and a further seven million online. Just 39 million of the radio audience listen in English.

The popular Europe Todayprogramme will disappear despite “its strong heritage and reputation”, but “audiences will receive at least as much news as they do now”, BBC chief Peter Horrocks told staff in an email.

Besides cutbacks and major reorganisation, the World Service must also come to terms with new funding rules. For decades, it was paid for by a direct parliamentary grant, channelled through the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. From 2014/15, however, the grant will cease and it will be paid for by British television licence-payers, the majority of whom, it must be said, have probably never listened to it, unless they tune into Radio 4 between 1am and 5.30am.

Alban Webb of the Open University, an oft-time historian of the World Service, said the station is facing one of “the most important reorganisations”, whilst needing to cherish values that have taken generations to build. In time, the BBC will have to convince British licence-payers of the World Service’s value even though they are “largely ignorant of it, but financially responsible for it”, while there is a danger that it could become more UK-focused to appeal to a domestic audience.

The World Service’s reputation, he said, was built on honours earned during the second World War, when it broadcast credible information into the darkness of a Nazi-dominated Europe. “It is an incredible brand that the rest of the world knows and values. It is one that could be destroyed if the wrong decisions are made and one that can never be recreated if it is lost now,” Webb told The Irish Times.

Besides having 1.5 million listeners in the UK for its English-language service, the World Service’s other languages are often listened to by immigrant communities living in the UK. “It speaks to the UK diasporas,” Webb said.

Not everyone is despondent, however; Richard Sambrook, former head of BBC global news, said the move to the new Broadcasting House should mean “genuine efficiencies . . . [and] it will be removed from Whitehall infighting over budgets.” Regretting the loss of services and hundreds of staff, Sambrook said “an important British export to the world should refashion itself rather than lament or try to hang on to the past”.

Few in Bush House share his optimism.

The sound of democracy on the Chinese airwaves

The news that the British Foreign Office was pulling the plug on Mandarin services on the BBC World Service was greeted with a maudlin shake of the head in China, although the web-savvy country soon tuned into different ways of accessing the Beeb. That Voice of America (VOA) followed the BBC decision probably compounded the feeling that the listenership in China that remains keen for the Western view of things was being sidelined.

I was such a fan of the BBC for such a long time. This came at a sensitive time. Why can’t they continue? No matter what, this was a way of hearing a different view of China – it’s a pity it’s going, said long-time listener Jiao Dong. For many, the BBC had become an anachronism. Journalism professor Ye Fengying said that the Beeb’s influence on the airwaves had been waning, so the decision was understandable. Sometimes I joke that only retired people watch TV and listen to the radio, because they are too weak to interact. Young people use the internet to get information; they use Twitter, microblogs and online social networks to keep up. Why should they use TV or radio? It’s cruel, but this is the reality of this media era, said Ye.

The reality for most people, however, is that controls on broadcasting are so tight in China that many have become used to using a Virtual Private Network (VPN) to access their information.

Raymond Li, head of BBC Chinese, told the China Dailynewspaper that, faced with cutbacks, the organisation needed to find more efficient ways of reaching its audience.

We have to end the radio programmes due to financial pressures, but in the meantime we are also reaching out to an even bigger Chinese audience through new media channels such as web and mobile phone operations, he said.

Li said that one of the reasons for the decision to cut the service was the popularity of online broadcasts.

One blogger called WTSH wrote: Britain’s power is fading, and the influence of the UK on the world stage is shrinking. The idea of the ‘sun never sets on the empire’ is just a history thing now.

In the end, it wasn’t the end of the world. Just the end of the World Service.

Clifford Coonanin Beijing

The voice African dictators couldn't silence

Although it is scrapping the Portuguese for Africa service, which has 1.5 million listeners, the World Service is not taking the axe to other African services. This will come as a relief to listeners from Nigeria to Kenya, who regard the BBC as an authoritative and factual source of information in a region dominated by state broadcasters and local language stations. Many of these vernacular stations have been accused of broadcasting ethnic hate speech in the run-up to the Rwandan genocide and in the wake of Kenya’s controversial 2007 election, which left more than 1,500 dead.

“We have to absorb 10 per cent in cuts, so we feel fortunate,” says David Okwembah, managing editor of BBC’s Kiswahili language service in Nairobi, which has 23.1 million listeners across Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda and eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. It partners with local stations in the region, providing them with three separate programmes of news and features daily at 6-6.30am, 6.30-7.30pm and at 8.45pm for 15 minutes. The Hausa service in Nigeria, which has 16 million listeners, will take similar cuts.

However, this will mean that shortwave services, which are harder to jam than FM services carried by local stations, will probably close in Rwanda and DRC. Given the strength of anti-media rhetoric in Rwanda, where journalists are regularly harassed and media houses closed down, this is a worry.

“In the push for multi-party democracy in Kenya during the 1990s, the BBC was regarded as the midwife that brought it along,” says Okwembah. “There is a high risk that the democratic advances we have made in the region could be clawed back by dictatorial systems if there isn’t someone there to hold them to account.”

Jody Clarkein South Africa