A world in your ear

John McCarthy

As the BBC World Service reaches the grand old age of 80, John McCarthy explores the power and reach of this unique institution and recalls the comfort he drew from its programmes during the dark days of his captivity in Lebanon

Hundreds of glasses were raised to join Peter Horrocks, director of BBC Global News, in a toast to the World Service on its 80th anniversary. The birthday party, held on 1 March in the courtyard of the World Service’s iconic home at Bush House, London, was an event full of warm thoughts and words about a remarkable and unique global institution. All those gathered celebrated the World Service’s reach and reputation – 166 million people trusting the accuracy and impartiality of its output in English and foreign language services.

Originally launched as the ‘Empire Service’ in 1932 to provide short-wave radio broadcasts overseas, predominantly to countries within the British Empire, in 1939 the name was changed to the ‘Overseas Service’ and by the end of World War II, was operating in more than 40 languages. Reflecting the end of the colonial era and a new emphasis on world affairs, the BBC World Service was born in 1965.

Its stated aim was to “make a significant contribution to sustaining citizenship around the world through providing an indispensable service of independent analysis and explanation with an international perspective which promotes greater understanding of complex issues.”

That was a huge ambition, but one that the World Service journalists have fulfilled with great skill. Despite the proliferation of alternative international news platforms, on local radio stations, satellite TV channels and the Internet, the continuing value of the World Service is reflected in its growing popularity. Its coverage of the Arab revolts over the past year has seen the audience for the Arab services (the very first foreign language service to be introduced back in 1938) jump by 50 percent. There have been huge increases too in audience numbers in Iran, while a recent survey shows the World Service is listened to by 60 percent of adults in Somaliland. It continues to act as a lifeline for those without a free media.

When I was a hostage in Lebanon in the late 1980s, the World Service was a lifeline for me. Sitting with a radio pressed to my ear and hearing the tune Lillibullero, followed by the words “This is the World Service of the BBC”, I would feel an enormous surge of hope and reassurance. The World Service entertained me, gave me a sense of perspective and taught me a great deal about the world I so yearned to get back to.

It is important to remember that it is not only through straight news that the World Service has been ‘sustaining citizenship’ but also through its broader coverage of current affairs, culture and science. We live in an increasingly interconnected world where the lives of people in one country or region are affected by political, social and economic developments elsewhere. Understanding the world and our place in it, learning about other people and discovering what they think of us, has become a vital part of national, local and individual life.

While its focus rightly has always been to its international audience, I believe the World Service also has real potential to enhance community cohesion in the UK. English language platforms can deepen understanding about the rest of the world, arguably leading to less reactionary views on political ‘flashpoints’ such as immigration. The foreign language services of the World Service can keep UK diaspora communities connected to news from their places of origin as well as provide a deeper insight into British society.

The party at Bush House not only celebrated the 80 years of international broadcasting from the BBC, it also marked the end of an era; the World Service is preparing to leave its historic home and move in with the domestic news services at a purpose-built centre at Broadcasting House.

With all news operations under one roof, there is a real opportunity for the World Service to be used more effectively to fulfil the BBC’s public service responsibility to “bring the world to the UK” as well as engage a wider domestic audience in international issues and entice domestic news away from its current rather narrow agendas. Perhaps the in-depth knowledge and expertise that form the core of the World Service could inform domestic programming, bringing a more internationalist agenda to UK licence fee payers.

This is an opportunity that needs to be grasped urgently. For the past 80 years, the World Service has been funded by the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office, but from 2014 it will be paid for out of the licence fee. So the BBC Trust will face the difficult task of balancing the interests of the domestic audience, which pays for services, with those of the international audience, which by and large doesn’t. How the BBC Trust responds in discharging this responsibility is one of the most important questions for the future of the World Service.

For those audiences around the world who have no other source of honest news, for those who want a cool, calm, authoritative voice to cut through the babble of available information, and for the UK public in general who need more information about the rest of the world, the World Service has never been more relevant or needed. Yet it is facing one of the most crucial periods in its history.

The sentiments and aspirations expressed at Bush House on 1 March must be stated more widely and loudly so that when the World Service comes under licence fee funding in three years’ time, there will be a clear understanding of its enormous value to Britain and the world.

About the author:

John McCarthy is a writer and broadcaster. His latest book, You Can't Hide the Sun: A Journey Through Israel and Palestine, is published in April


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