London Time: In Memoriam

Article excerpt

Byline: Peter Pomerantsev

The BBC's Foreign Language Services have been sacrificed to budget cuts--a profound loss for Britain.

It was my grandfather's secret life and hidden ritual, but one that he shared with millions across the globe. Throughout the 1970s, in his tiny Kiev apartment, my grandfather would wait until his extended family was asleep, tiptoe to the kitchen, quietly switch on the transistor Spidola radio, and gently push the dial to shortwave. He wiggled and waved the antenna to dispel the fog of jamming, climbed on chairs and tables to get the best reception, steered the dial in between transmissions of East German pop and Soviet military bands, pressed his ear tight to the speaker, and, through the hiss and crackle, made his way to these magical words: "This is the Russian Service of the BBC. The time in London is 10 o'clock." And with these words, spoken in his language but with a British calm, came the relief that there was another, better, freer world. "London time" was not just a time zone, but a state of mind my grandfather could share, in his cramped Soviet kitchen connected to the mackerel sky over the London Strand, where from the World Service of the BBC a thousand voices in more than 30 languages all spoke of one idea to millions of listeners worldwide. Many of the listeners were risking their freedom: tuning in meant the secret police would be on their way, the knock on the door imminent. But it was worth it, just to hear those words: "BBC. The time in London is -- "

On March 22, many of the BBC Radio Foreign Language Services were silenced as part of the British government's budget cuts. No longer will the BBC talk on the airwaves in Russian, Hindi, Mandarin, Turkish, Vietnamese, Azeri, Ukrainian, Albanian, Cuban-Spanish, Portuguese-African, Serbian, Albanian, or Macedonian. The station will have 30 million fewer listeners a week. There will be some websites and podcasts in the dropped languages, but these will be of limited relevance. Even in a fairly developed country like Russia, only 20 percent of the population has access to Internet connections fast enough to listen to audio podcasts.

Should Britain care? Has it lost anything?

I am biased. After being exiled from the Soviet Union in the late '70s, my father drifted around Europe, baby me in tow, until he was given a home by the BBC's Russian Service. During holidays and half-term he would let me come with him to work, to that island on the Strand known as Bush House. It was a wondrous island for a child. As soon as my father was locked in the aquarium of the broadcasting studio, I was free to roam every floor. Down the wide stairs I went--around me every color and ethnicity the world knows, all speaking, shouting English in different accents. All typing, smoking, sprinting between slamming doors to break the latest news. The programs were edited on reel-to-reels, the tape cut with tiny, deadly blades. I'd stuff my pockets full of outtakes from the floor. The hard-edged tape scratched my palms. I fancied myself a rescuer, saving voices destined for the bin.

The inhabitants of Bush House were all troops in a war. Every other journalist was a great exiled poet or minister-in-waiting. Every word they broadcast to Prague, Moscow, Tehran, Saigon, Havana, and Warsaw was treasured in their home countries. My father put on a radio version of Vaclav Havel's plays--the first time most people in the U.S.S.R. had heard the imprisoned dramatist's work. The Polish Service gave almost unlimited airtime to an upstart union leader in Gdansk called Lech Walesa; it was largely via the BBC Polish Service that the rest of Poland found out about Solidarnosc. When my father was too busy, I would play football in the long, purple-lit marble corridors with Egon from the Slovak Service. …