Short Cuts

Jeremy Harding

You can listen to Radio Three on a laptop anywhere these days, or run Five Live through a Sky digibox in, say, the Dordogne. In the days before this was possible, it was the World Service that kept hundreds of thousands of people from acute information-deficit disorder if they happened to stray beyond the range of the home service. In sub-Saharan Africa, a stone’s throw nowadays from a modern, multicultural city like London, the BBC was happy at first to sing the praises of the old country – and the colonies – in a schoolmasterly, district-commissioner sort of way. The first African radio station in the Empire Service, as it was known, was set up in the Gold Coast, now Ghana, in 1935. The wind of change was in those days only an invigorating breeze on the exposed parts between sock-tops and shorts, but when independence became the order of the day, the World Service talked it up with generosity and commitment. Then, as one setback followed another in Africa, Bush House, like a serene young chorister, tried in vain to hit the top A of political correctness. But its voice had already broken and the flow of intelligent, disabused journalism from the field was unstoppable. To their credit, programme makers and executives took their reporters on trust.

When I was in African countries listening to the World Service in English, millions of people would be picking up bulletins in Somali, Swahili, Arabic, Hausa, French and Portuguese. While I was in Pakistan tapping frequencies into a Sony shortwave radio looking for the news in English, large numbers were tuning in to programmes in Urdu. The eight million Urdu listeners in Pakistan were members of a far larger weekly audience in the ‘South Asia’ region (six languages), its own numbers dwarfed by audiences to the east, in the ‘Asia Pacific’ region (four, including Chinese): roughly 60 million. In Africa and the Middle East, the weekly audience figures are now about 80 million. The World Service is a heroic presence. At the last count there were 182 million listeners tuning in to the service in any of 33 languages.

The retransmission of World Service programmes on local FM – and some MW – stations around the world ensures that the figures keep rising. Many now carry material produced by the BBC and there is a definite trend, at the World Service, towards FM ‘partnerships’ with these stations – Radio 10 in Rwanda is a recent example. The improvement in quality of reception is immense, as it is with the BBC’s own relays. There are problems all the same. When the Nigerian government stopped local stations rebroadcasting foreign news programmes in 2004, the World Service lost 1.5 million listeners. When the same rule was imposed in India, the losses were far higher – around 12 million between 1995 and 2002 – and signalled a ‘dramatic drop in overall radio listening’, according to the BBC.

FM listeners are the denizens of large cities. If they have access to a good shortwave radio, they can always fall back on the traditions of the rural areas (this is what happened in Nigeria), where shortwave is still the way to pick up the service. It would be a high-risk strategy to move production away from Bush House to local stations, even if it meant saving millions of pounds in overheads and salaries by paying programme makers at local rates. What if national broadcasting regulators in Country X decided some of the content was undesirable? The answer, possibly, is that it could be fed to Bush House and repackaged for shortwave broadcast while being kept off the local FM outlet. But it wouldn’t be long before a local station producing controversial shows for transmission from outside the country (and back into it) came under pressure.

No one is surprised that the BBC is considering this possibility for the World Service. In the late imperial era it was the voice of the imperium; in the era of neoliberal ideology, it’s been the object of cost-cutting edicts and market-populist directives, slavishly obedient to the ideology of the day, which – like empire – can’t last for ever. It was a shame when the BBC’s television output was trashed by these new enthusiasms, but scarcely a tragedy. The World Service is a more valuable asset, both to Britain and to the growing number of people who want to tune in.

‘Offshoring’ is nonetheless the order of the day, with 80 per cent of the Bush House Hindi output destined for production in Delhi and half of the Urdu output in Islamabad. About fifty staffers in Bush House will have to decide whether to relocate to India, Pakistan and Nepal or accept redundancy. Arjum Wajid, the NUJ’s mother of chapel at the BBC Urdu service, says the process began three years ago ‘with a 30-minute section of the daily Hindi current affairs programme being produced in the Delhi office instead of Bush House. Then the night news bulletins were transferred to Delhi and, for over a year now, two night-time current affairs programmes have been prepared and presented from Delhi.’

Last year the on-the-hour Urdu FM news bulletin, produced and presented from London, was transferred to Islamabad. An editor was sent out from Bush House and the rest of the production team was recruited on site. The bulletin quickly became the object of a legal wrangle between the BBC and the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority. Tensions increased when Musharraf declared a state of emergency in November.

‘Under Indian and Pakistani laws,’ Wajid wrote in the Journalist in May, ‘foreign media companies must broadcast through a local outlet. The BBC’s deal with its partner station in Pakistan, Mast FM 103, could make its broadcasts of BBC bulletins subject to PEMRA’s regulatory standards.’ They could, in other words, be edited or pulled. So far, she says, there has been no interference in the content of the programmes. ‘But journalists are worried that . . . the BBC could be handing over its editorial control to a dictatorial regime.’ That’s a serious concern, yet the who-cares factor looks likely to prevail.

In 1934, in a less foolhardy experiment, the BBC motto, ‘Nation shall speak peace unto nation,’ was changed to the single Latin word Quaecunque. BBC buffs believe it was a stuffy allusion to Paul’s epistle to the Philippians: Quaecunque sunt vera (‘whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest . . . think on these things’). With the onset of the Cold War, the BBC crept carefully back to the original motto, testing the ground with a corporate Christmas card in 1948. The moment seems right to revert to Quaecunque. Whatever.