The BBC World Service is more important now than ever

On the 5thof November, the BBC launched the largest bureau outside the UK in Nairobi, Kenya. This development is hot on the heels of another large expansion in 2016, the biggest “since the 1940s” when it was announced that the World Service was to be broadcast in 11 new languages. All of this has brought the role of the BBC World Service into sharper focus and forced an evaluation of its contribution to international affairs. In its own words, the World Service aims to be “the world’s best known and most-respected voice in international broadcasting, thereby bringing benefit to the UK, the BBC, and to audiences around the world”. Immediately this wording raises questions. Does it primarily serve UK interests before global interests? The World Service has been historically portrayed, and still is today, as the malevolent propaganda wing of the UK Foreign Office meddling in the affairs of other countries. Its roots in Britain’s imperial past does nothing to dispel this idea. However, although it has made some mistakes along the way, the importance of a global news network dedicated to spreading the valuable information in often trying circumstances should not be taken for granted. The BBC World Service is a vital weapon against global tyranny and media censorship.

Image Courtesy of EEIM via Wikimedia © 2012, some rights reserved

The World Service began life in 1932 as the BBC Empire Service originally aimed at English-speakers across the colonies. The service was funded out of the Foreign Office and continued to be until 2011. The first foreign-language services were launched in Arabic and German in 1938 with all major European languages also covered by 1942. The service was renamed the BBC Overseas Service in 1939 and then the External Services of the BBC. During the Second World War, the BBC was an important propaganda tool for the Allies. Especially, the well-known French service, Radio Londres, which transmitted information into occupied France to support the Resistance. George Orwell worked for the External Service and broadcasted news bulletins on the Eastern Service. Although a controversial figure, his name was thought to be of propaganda valuewhen broadcasting to India. In 1965, the External Services of the BBC became what we know it as today – the BBC World Service. The late 1990s and 2000s saw a dramatic restructuring of its output with the closing of many of its foreign-language services, mainly in Europe. This was in response to the findings that most people listened to its English-services but also due to budget restrictions. This also prompted the move to have the World Service funded out of the domestic licence fee in line with the rest of the BBC services in 2011.

The World Service has been hit with various controversies across its history. Perhaps the most notable was in 1985 when the service went off air for the first and only time due to a journalist strike. They were protesting the government’s decision to ban a documentary that featured an interview with the prominent Sinn Fein member Martin McGuinness. This did little to dispel the impression that the BBC was the mouthpiece of whoever was in government at the time. More recently there was outcry at a deal between the World Service and the US State Department  prompted by fears that the US was buying influence in the BBC and that there would be a more pro-American output as a result.
However, in reality the deal was to provide US funding to combat global media censorship. These sorts of endeavours are increasingly necessary to fight the rising tide of TV and internet censorship. In 2013, the BBC’s director of global news condemned the “deliberate”jamming of the BBC World Service in China and Iran. The story reveals difficulties the media faces in the current international climate. The US funding was to be used to help the BBC overcome Internet and TV controls in countries such as China and Iran. It was also to educate people, in countries with high levels of censorship, ways to personally navigate government controls and access the free media. We can take the free press and abilities to read and consume information from all viewpoints, especially those that are critical of our own government, for granted in this country. However, this is not the reality that many people face across the world. We should be proud that the World Service is doing its bit to overcome restricted freedom of press and knowledge barriers rooted in authoritarianism.

The fact that the biggest international opponents of the BBC seemsto be autocratic regimes, all well-known for their love of censorship and dislike for a free press, suggests that the World Service is probably doing something right. In an era where even the President of the United States decries the media as the enemy of the people, an expanding BBC World Service is needed more than ever.


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Banner picture: Image Courtesy of Briantist via Wikimedia © 2007, some rights reserved