Nation shall (not) speak peace unto Nation

Posted on: 13 April 2011 by Alexander Hay

The World Service faces threats both within and without

The World Service's HQ at Bush House, London

Ah, the World Service... Mostly a fan favourite amongst insomniacs, students and creatures of the night, its English language service fills the gap between the national anthem before Radio 4 shuts down, and keeps us amused until that show about farming comes on.

It is little known beyond its fans, and so receives little of the affection or frothing hatred that the rest of the BBC gets. This is in part because it is obscure, and in part because until recently it was funded by the Foreign Office rather than by television viewers, as the rest of the BBC is.

This is set to change in 2014 when Foreign Office spending is halted and the World Service will have to rely on the licence fee instead. This means cuts all round and so the end of five services.

The government justifies these cuts as necessary, since the rest of the country is facing austerity too. Again, we are faced with a false economy, as the World Service is one of those investments whose value is equal to its investment in terms of political and cultural reach.

True, you might not miss the BBC's Albanian language broadcasting or its English programming for the Carribean, but plenty of Albanians and West Indians might. MPs were right to criticise these short-sighted, ideologically driven cuts imposed by the government, but it doesn't seem to be listening.

After all, it seems madness to retreat from the world stage, especially if your radio service is actually reaching out to people with little access to quality or reliable media in their own language. One might assume the government finds all this internationalism very old fashioned, with managed decline being the mantra of the day, but it still seems profoundly foolish to cut even as Britain's influence elsewhere on the world stage is in retreat.

Not that the World Service has much to boast about. Closing down 10 foreign language services in 2006 just to open two new Arabic and Persian news TV news channels seemed rather rash, and for similar reasons.

As ever, the Beeb got its remit and its quest for ever more ratings mixed up - Persian and Arabic speaking audiences being the second and fifth largest overall for the World Service. Meanwhile, Thai and Kazakh listeners who couldn't understand English could simply get knotted.

But by pursuing what is popular, the BBC risks losing what is good. Closing down those services means losing a lot of trained journalists and staff with potentially useful language skills and cultural insights. Again, the decision is short sighted. We don't know where the next regional crisis will be or where people will need quality media beyond their own borders.

In any case, focussing on the Middle East and India in terms of funding seems a lot like toadying to these financially and politically important areas. While a reliance on the most popular service - yes, in English - hints at the dreadful monolingual mindset of the British as a whole.

The World Service is potentially a force for good in the world, a reliable means of giving our country a voice on the international stage. To restrict or under-fund it is a blunder on a vast scale.

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Alexander Hay

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