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Britannia rules the radio airwaves in the world news

Eight years before Mr. Green described the English gathered around their radios in a West African outpost, listening for the chimes of Big Ben and news of home, Sir John Reith, the BBC's first director-general, established the policy that molded the character of BBC news programs.

"In the domain of information," Sir John wrote in the BBC Handbook for 1928, "this policy is to give clear, accurate, brief, and impartial news of what's going on in the great world, in a form that will not pander to sensation and yet will arouse a continuing interest."

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Much has changed in the "great world" in the 52 years since Sir John set down his policy, although the BBC's reputation for exemplary impartiality and truthfulness has remained a constant. This reputation is so ingrained in its millions of listeners all over the world that the BBC is believed even when it's wrong, which is seldom.

Lord Reith put the BBC into overseas broadcasting in 1932, in the face of government doubt and without government support or funds. He financed the operation from licensing fees charged to domestic listeners. But he made at least one convert, the King, who broadcast to his empire on Christmas Day, just six days after the Empire Service began.

On the eve of World War II an uneasy government, aware of the propaganda bombardment both Hitler and Mussolini were sending forth into the airwaves (mostly to the Arab world and to Latin America), asked Lord Reith to begin broadcasting to foreign countries in their own languages.

This was the start of the BBC's external service. It began with the Arabic, Latin American, French, German, and Italian services. The Foreign Office controlled the purse strings and determined which languages were to be broadcast and for how long each week but kept clear of interfering with program content, an enigma in government-financed broadcasting.

The BBC has worked hard to preserve the reputation bequeathed by Lord Reith, though it is difficult for totalitarian regimes to understand why successive British governments have tolerated such "subversive" activity.

The biggest challenge to the BBC's integrity came during the Anglo-French invasion of the Suez Canal in 1956. It was then that Prime Minister Anthony Eden tried to get his government to wield a blue pencil in BBC newsrooms. He failed. This was a milestone in the Voice of Britain's fight to remain independent of government influence.

The external service broadcasts in English and 38 other languages for 711 hours a week, reaching an estimated global audience of between 75 million and 100 million listeners. There are transmissions in 17 languages to Europe and 21 languages to other continents. There is also the World Service, part of the external service, which broadcasts 24 hours a day in English.

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Richard McCarthy, a spokesman for the service, says the BBC ranks behind the international radio networks of the Soviet Union, the United States, the Warsaw Pact countries, China, and West Germany in air time.

It is significant that with only 711 hours of weekly air time compared with the USSR's 2,010, and the combined American output of 1,813, the BBC commands the most listeners. This is more impressive still when one realizes that the Soviets broadcast in 85 languages, America in 60, and that the BBC limps along on 1942 transmitters, which do little to enhance reception in lands far from England.

The administrative and broadcast headquarters of the external service are in Bush House, a gray citadel-like pile at the bottom of Kingsway in central London designed by American architects. The words "To the Friendship of English-Speaking Peoples" are cut into the horizontal stone, supported by twin Corinthian columns, above the entranceway. They complement the BBC's motto, "Nation shall speak peace unto nation."

Radio Newsreel and the famous nine-minute newscasts (introduced by the familiar pips) are among the most popular of Britain's best-known invisible exports. "Many countries," Richard McCarthy explains, "rely on the World Service to supplement their own services with BBC news, sports, and other programs. Every week there are 3,000 rebroadcasts of our programs in 50 countries."

There is a story, not entirely apocryphal, that periodically circulates in the corridors of Bush House of the announcer of a state-controlled radio station (the name of almost any Communist-bloc country will do) who signed off the international news by saying: "For the local news, please tune to the BBC."

It is not unusual for BBC listeners to hear of catastrophic events in their own backyard, beamed from London in their own language, before hearing the "news" on domestic radio. This has been so in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, Iran, India, and, most recently, in Afghanistan where listeners tuned in the BBC's Persian and Urdu programs to learn what was happening in their homeland.

BBC listener surveys show that central and southeast Europeans prefer the BBC to the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, and the German Republic's Deutsche Welle.

The high esteem in which the BBC's external service is held was never more apparent than last fall when Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's government proposed to cut the service's budget by about $9 million, thus silencing seven language transmissions, including French, German, Greek, and Italian. The Guardian newspaper declared in an editorial that the proposal "will do massive and irreparable damage to an organization which provides an unparalleled service throughout the world -- and, incidentally, does much to boost this country's international reputation."

The days of the English huddled around wireless sets in the remote parts of the British Empire, longing for news of home, have passed. Today they have been replaced by millions of listeners whose thirst for truth brings them to the BBC, often at personal risk. They listen in Moscow, Tehran, Kabul, Leipzig, Delhi, and Peking.

"The dominance the BBC once had is no longer a fact of life," says Richard McCarthy. "But we still have the major audience of any international service. Perhaps since we have no gunboats, are no great economic power, and have no ax to grind, what we say is believed. What we say is trusted."

Nearly half a century after the BBC's overseas service began, the chimes of Big Ben continue to introduce the Voice of Britain, which reports "what's going on in the great world" to the whole world.


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