Home > cultural commentary > The World Service – a short and true story

The World Service – a short and true story

The BBC announced yesterday that the BBC World Service is to lose a quarter of its workforce and cease broadcasting in seven languages. Hard times, budget cuts, the same story that’s affecting all kinds of services these days. I feel emotional about this, and not just because I’m probably one of the few people actually living in the UK who listen to it from time to time.

I feel emotional about it because an old friend of mine was saved by the World Service, about 20 years ago. ‘Saved’ is an emotive word. His life was probably not in danger, but he was a political activist in an authoritarian regime that didn’t tolerate people with ‘liberal’ views, like democracy being a generally good thing. He was arrested, held without charge, and would certainly faced a long time in prison in the absence of any protests.

His arrest was reported on the BBC World Service and sparked a campaign to have him released. At one point, he told me, the prison governor took him to his office and showed him nine sacks of mail delivered there and lined up against one wall, all from people who’d heard the broadcast and were asking for his release. He was told the Ministry (I can’t remember whether it was the Justice Ministry – maybe not, for political prisoners) had had to set up a complete office devoted specifically to him because it had been overwhelmed by the volume of mail about his case. And this played a major part in the decision to release him, a few weeks later.

This story must be played out repeatedly around the world and the BBC World Service is a big part of getting happy endings, at least in some cases.

So too, of course, is Amnesty International. I actually don’t know how much involvement Amnesty had in my friend’s case but the truth is that letters from any source can and do save lives, can and do get people released from prison, can and do help preserve human rights.

There are commentators at the moment talking about how cutting the World Service, which in media terms is one of the BBC’s ‘Crown Jewels’ even if it’s rarely listened to in the UK itself, will impact the UK’s international visibility and cultural influence, and that’s probably right. But I’d also want to underline the human dramas that often remain hidden or are quickly forgotten, and where World Service broadcasts are key factors in prompting action.

That authoritarian regime, incidentally, is long since gone and my friend is still around – thanks in no small measure to the World Service. There are some funny stories to be told, like the time I took him to visit a prison (I was a researcher at the time) and he looked around and pointed out that when he’d been in prison the conditions for political prisoners were actually not as bad as the ones for the offenders in the prison we visited… which earned some strange looks from the prison staff. But maybe that’s a story for another time and another blog. I just want to say that cutting the World Service is an incredibly bad idea because ultimately it will impact on efforts to support human rights around the globe.

  1. January 27, 2011 at 8:38 pm

    I have to agree. The World Service is important and should not be allowed to shrink. Having written, via Amnesty campaigns, to save the lives of people all over the world, I’m aware of what letters can do. We need reminding that we’re actually pretty well off, even in a depression, compared to some people in some places. So well done you for raising the subject.

  2. January 27, 2011 at 8:41 pm

    Brilliant post, and comment. I have a very dear friend who grew up under apartheid in South Africa. As the sanctions bit deeper and the media control became harsher, her family relied upon the World Service not only to find out what was happening in the outside world, but also a balanced view of what was happening in their own country. Another friend who grew up in Iran tells the same story. This is disastrous, as you say not only for the UK’s trade and diplomatic interests, but also for human rights, an area the UK’s image is fairly tainted at the moment.

    • January 27, 2011 at 10:52 pm

      Thank you! It is amazing how the BBC has managed to stay more or less politically independent, certainly compared to other media I can think of. I’ve certainly heard the point before that people in some countries rely on the BBC to tell them what’s happening in their own country, and that’s something important I hate to see being whittled away gradually year by year.

      As to the UK’s image being tainted in the human rights area… always has been, I think! But I’ll save the history lesson for another time…

  3. January 27, 2011 at 9:59 pm

    Now this really rattles my cage. You hear about downsizing, but you don’t really feel it, until a touchstone shakes. I hope that doesn’t include BBC America–every now and then, I like to listen to a little unbiased journalism. Whahaha!

  4. January 27, 2011 at 11:01 pm

    I’m not sure how BBC America will be affected – though there will still be the website. As I understand it though some iPlayer programmes aren’t accessible in the US anyway, presumably because they want to sell the programming to US TV channels?

    There’s always a lot of argument in the UK about the license fee (the annual ‘tax’ the BBC is allowed to levy for owning a TV) but I don’t think many people appreciate quite how much is done with it or how significant the BBC is on the world stage.

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