Save the World Service

By Chisholm, Kate | The Spectator, February 5, 2011 | Go to article overview

Save the World Service


Chisholm, Kate, The Spectator


All this talk about cuts might not be such a bad thing, if it forces us to think about what really should not be left to rot and wither away for lack of funding. Take the BBC's World Service. Do we really need it in these post-imperial times? After all, it was set up in 1932 so that the King could keep in touch with his subjects, day and night, around the globe, wherever they might be. Those first broadcasts rather touchingly suggested that the King and his representatives in Whitehall actually cared about what happened to the peoples of Togo, Tanganyika and Christchurch, NZ. But, as The King's Speech suggests, the British Empire Service, as it was originally named, was all about propaganda and preservation, talking up the royals and pre - serving British hegemony in far-flung corners of the world.

It's a weird coincidence that the film has become such a huge box-office success, just at the very moment when the radio technology it promotes and salutes is under threat.

We come away from the cinema remembering a time when to be British meant grit, determination, fair play, decency and doing the right thing. And it's the radio broadcasts, we are led to believe, that created this.

But the World Service is about to suffer savage cuts to its funding, losing 650 of its 2,400 jobs, or more than 25 per cent of its employees. Let them go, you might think.

What difference will it make to the minority of Macedonian and Albanian listeners who've been tuning in day-by-day for up to-the-minute news from around the world, not just the Balkan states? Will the Caribbean service be much missed in the back - streets of Port-au-Prince, where life is about the struggle to survive starvation and dis - ease after the earthquake so that listening to the radio is a luxury beyond the reach of most people? Why should we worry about cuts to the World Service when our national health service is in such peril?

Yet these are all the wrong questions.

What we should be reflecting on is whether we can afford to junk yet more centres of excellence (after the last bout of demolition in the 1980s). When the Empire Service was set up, the technology was ropey, the radio journalism stilted and self-consciously imperialist in tone. It took years for the production quality to improve and for the ideas behind the microphone to firm up into the impartial ideals to which the BBC aspires (if it does not always attain). …

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