The BBC World Service is at a turning point

I’m sorry that I haven’t posted on this earlier but – like many interesting topics – I came across the whole question by chance.  Having read a little more about the issues involved, the whole subject  seems so fundamental that I hope as many readers as possible will follow it for themselves and sign the UK petition for a full investigation (see more below).

Robert Chandler, a well-known Russian translator, posted an item on one of the translation boards I follow with a link to his recent article in Open Democracy.  He sets out the points in the argument succinctly:

Lord Reith saw the BBC’s mission as being to inform, to educate and to entertain.  Today’s management sees it as the provision of ‘rolling news coverage’.  They do not seem to understand that what Russian listeners need – even more than reliable news – are fresh perspectives from which to view this news […]

The range and depth of its ‘features’ has long been a successful trademark formula of the BBC’s broadcasting to the rest of the world.  The format allows the setting up of a dialogue between people whom it might be impossible to bring together in any other way […].

Once ‘features’ are gone, a tradition is lost and a significant audience worldwide (not only in Russia but also in the West and in other parts of the former Soviet Union) will turn elsewhere […].

The only possible purpose of any of the foreign-language services is to disseminate views that cannot easily be heard in the target country.  The role of the World Service is to educate – and the BBC should not be ashamed to proclaim this.

So why then is the BBC’s “Russian” voice being muted at a time when its services are most needed, and above all why is the goal of providing “balanced coverage” of controversial topics being influenced by political constraints?

As Chandler states, the BBC’s Moscow-based journalists are “terrified of offending the Kremlin”, and this produces a pro-Kremlin stance that undermines the Service’s moral authority and the respect of its listeners.

In a letter appended to Chandler’s article, Richard Hainsworth (a financial analyst who has lived in Moscow since 1982) sums up the entire question in a few lines:

Yet freedom of speech, truth, balance, reliable information are simply not products universally available today. The BBC’s World Service does not exist in a competitive global market. As a beacon of truth and balanced opinion it would be unique, and demonstrate that the values of truthfulness and trustworthiness can be associated with Britain, thus enhancing its interests in the world. It behoves the British government to fund the BBC’s World Service adequately, and the BBC’s leadership to aspire to a moral mission that transcends financial constraints. The peoples of the world will thank them if they do.

The real puzzle is that our MPs have had a full debate on the matter – in December 2008 – and all of these issues were raised.  Greg Hands (Conservative, Hammersmith & Fulham), in particular, was very vocal in his criticism (again, do read it in full!) – starting with the premise that “The World Service is at a turning point”.

His main concern was that Nigel Chapman, the then outgoing director of the BBC World Service (on an annual salary of £228,000 in 2005!), did not place sufficient emphasis on the Russian service’s role in a situation where freedom of the press is being constantly eroded. The murder of Anna Politkovskaya is perhaps the most prominent example. She was working on what is commonly regarded as Russia’s main, and some say only, independent newspaper, Novaya Gazeta,which has recently stopped reporting anything about the Russian secret services and is under great pressure more generally.

According to Greg Hands (see above), none of the main office holders in the BBC Russian service speaks fluent Russian!  Now that’s an extraordinary state of affairs in view of the number of British experts on Russia.  The posts were not advertised externally and therefore the BBC has arrogantly dismissed the idea of drawing on this pool of cultural and linguistic expertise.

Moreover, he too notes a “shift in the BBC editorial standards”.

In the past the Russian service understood its mission as “providing alternative information and analysis”. However, today it feels it necessary to ensure the constant presence of the “Kremlin point of view”.

The BBC World Service is far too valuable a resource for us to let it be taken over by commercial concerns – the spread of Internet, penetration, audience ratings.    This is where Britain should maintain its “moral mission” and support democratic press freedom.  Arguably, though, this can only be done a distance – not by outsourcing the various regional services abroad – and crucially the BBC must involve external experts in the field.

To sign the petition “to launch a full and independent investigation into the BBC World Service” click here. (You can sign up until 9 April and, as of now, there are 327 signatories)

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