The BBC World Service

By Gebbels, Tim | Contemporary Review, September 1995 | Go to article overview

The BBC World Service


Gebbels, Tim, Contemporary Review


What would you choose if you had to nominate an image which you thought summed up what is `quintessentially English'? Cricket on village greens, enthroned Britannia, or indeed the adjectival coupling `quintessentially English' are all somewhat overworked these days. How about British institutions? Parliament, the Church, the Royal Family -- well perhaps, but for many English people all these can be problematic. The Establishment's a bit out of fashion among the chattering classes at the moment. What about colonialism? That's not as absurd as it sounds if considered together with one of Britain's undoubted national institutions, the BBC.

Britain is no longer a colonial power and it would be untrue to suggest imperialist zeal motivates the BBC's World Service in the 1990s, but it may well have been part of what prompted the British Broadcasting Corporation, back in 1932, to begin overseas transmissions. It did call its new operation the Empire Service, after all.

Caroline Thomson, director of strategy and corporate affairs at the World Service and number two to the managing director, acknowledged this in an extensive interview she gave to the Contemporary Review recently.

Domestic broadcasting had been going for nearly a decade by the early 1930s and short wave radio, which made world-wide transmissions possible, was seen as a viable means of extending BBC services to the white Commonwealth, principally Australia, New Zealand and Canada.

With the Second World War, a clearer need for overseas broadcasts emerged in the provision of information for countries occupied by the enemy. General de Gaulle's broadcasts to the French people were carried, and the development of foreign language services for listeners in France, Germany, Spain and Italy was rapid. The focus had shifted from the Empire very much to Western Europe. This was not propaganda, insists Caroline Thomson: `Right from the beginning, the Empire Service had an absolute tradition, that while it was communicating with the Empire, this was done separately from the government. It was initially funded by the BBC. Government money in large amounts only started coming in during the Second World War but the tradition of editorial independence and that what it was doing was not being a propaganda arm of government but broadcasting free and untainted information, was the key element of the Empire Service and has remained a key element throughout, until the present day.'

Free and untainted information continued as World Service's raison d'etre. After the war the focus shifted eastward from Western Europe as the Cold War became a dominant theme in international affairs. With the breaking down of East-West divisions in the last five or ten years however, objectives are again changing. The territories of the former Soviet Union remain as important as they ever were, but China is now seen as crucial, along with many Third World countries.

Today the BBC's World Service has a global audience of around 133 million of whom 35 million listen in English. English broadcasts are popular in much of Africa, the Indian sub-continent and, in southeast Asia, Malaysia and Singapore. Recent changes in BBC broadcasting to Britain itself now mean that the World Service can easily be heard on Radio Four after the midnight news until 6 a.m. -- a great boon for insomniacs. Forty foreign language services also exist, ranging from the Arabic service which operates twelve hours a day, to the Albanian service which broadcasts for a mere hour and a quarter out of every 24. World Service is responsible for the BBC's monitoring operations at Caversham in Berkshire, where hundreds of radio and television transmissions from around the globe are recorded and analyzed.

In addition, World Service runs three television news operations in English, Arabic, and, just recently, a limited service in Japanese. Launched about six years ago, the television operation has always been kept separate from radio. …

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