Magazine article The Spectator

Radio in from the Cold

Magazine article The Spectator

Radio in from the Cold

Article excerpt

When it was announced earlier this week that Aung San Suu Kyi will soon be cast away for Desert Island Discs, it was suggested her choices of music will be 'really interesting', because, under house arrest in Burma, she had been forced to live in 'a time warp, a capsule away from the world'. But will she really be so out of touch with the musical tastes of Radio 4 listeners?

Suu Kyi has often mentioned her gratitude to the BBC, and the World Service in particular, for leading her to places, ideas, music and poetry that were located and inspired thousands of miles away from the house where she was confined just outside Rangoon. (Her admiration for the World Service has been echoed by political prisoners everywhere from John McCarthy in the Bekaa Valley in the 1980s to Ingrid Betancourt in the Colombian jungle almost 20 years later. ) The role that the World Service plays on the global stage is often under-appreciated.

Its audience is huge, 43.7 million a week listen to its English-language programmes alone, plus all the listeners to the 28 specialist language services (up to 180 million), and far-reaching (as the stories of Suu Kyi, McCarthy and Betancourt demonstrate). Its status within the BBC hierarchy is just about to change dramatically, both financially, through the proposed transfer of its funding from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to the licence fee, which will happen in 2014, and physically, now that Bush House, its home since 1941, has been abandoned. Will it lose something of its identity, squashed by the ebullient diversity of Radios 1 to 6?

Or will it bring something of the world into those domesticated networks, broadening the perspective and adding new voices?

It's been 71 years since the World Service was given its own home in that grand and rather pompous building pivoted between Kingsway, Fleet Street and the Strand. Until then as the Empire Service it had been just another network within the BBC, alongside the Home (or National) Service and all the regional stations (the Light and Third came later). In Bush House it developed a very different character, creating a kind of benign Tower of Babel, a place within whose labyrinth of corridors you might hear fluent Pashtu one minute and Mandarin Chinese the next. Its reputation for deep and wide news coverage that could be relied upon as accurate was secured in these years. But also much more than that, as we discovered in John Tusa's programme for Radio 4, Goodbye to Bush House (produced by Anna Horsbrugh-Porter).

The World Service showed the BBC what radio could do beyond mere information, reaching out to Occupied France (with de Gaulle's five-minute broadcasts every day for four years from Bush House), speaking to those trapped behind the Iron Curtain, especially in Moscow, and encouraging those involved in the Tiananmen Square uprising in China. …

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