Broadcasting in the UK between one and five in the morning when most of us are deep into our latest essay crisis, the BBC World Service may not be the radio station of choice for students here. However, it is the lifeline for the 188 million people around the world who rely on it for the high quality, unbiased reporting that would not otherwise be available. As part of a whole tranche of public sector cuts, the 16 per cent cut made to the BBC World Service has forced the closure of a number of language services, amongst them the Macedonian language service, which closed on Friday. Services in Mandarin, Serbian, Russian, Spanish for Cuba, Turkish and Vietnamese have also closed or will close over the next few months, with the loss of more than six hundred jobs, in Britain and across the world.
The BBC World Service has a very long and proud history of providing in-depth, balanced reporting in areas of the world where it was most needed. The then BBC Yugoslav Service started broadcasting in 1939 just before the country came under Nazi control; those struggling against Hitler listened to the broadcasts in secret because being caught doing so could be punished with imprisonment. Again, during the Presidency of Slobodan Milosevic, the Serbian service was the people’s sole source of free and fair media. According to Serb playright Jovan Cirilov, the service “set the highest standards of journalism” and because of the insular nature of the nation’s media, “made those of us who listened citizens of the world”.
These services are not optional extras for the BBC, merely relics of a long gone imperial age when the corporation needed to communicate to its nationals in colonial governments; they are vital channels of information for people around the world who would otherwise be completely cut off. There is a reason why the BBC closed its Luxembourgish service in 1952 and its Dutch and Danish services in 1957, but has continued broadcasting in the languages of Afghanistan, China, Burma and many others besides. These are all countries which have governments with limited democratic credentials and as a result have a much diminshed public sphere with the BBC being amongst the very few truly independent news services.
The BBC has already cut services that are not vitally neccessary for the promotion of democracy, knowledge and understanding. To cut the World Service any further would threaten to undo the strides made in all of these regards. The BBC also operates an English learning service which has helped millions of people learn the language they need to create prosperity for themselves, their families and their countries. The cuts threaten to pull another support out from underneath those people who need it most. There is a reason why you probably haven’t heard of Hausa (spoken in Niger and other parts of western Africa) or Kinyarwanda (DRC, Rwanda and Uganda). These are languages that have very few links to the international world apart from the BBC and almost no serious media representation other than that provided by the BBC World Service language broadcasts.
The government and the BBC must recognise that over eight decades millions of people have become dependent on its foreign language services. It would be incredibly shortsighted and ultimately disastrous for them to be withdrawn in a fit of narrow-minded, selfish Little Englishness brought about by the desire to cut anything and everything remotely foreign before cutting spending back home. The BBC World Service’s promotion of quality international journalism in less free parts of the world shines out amongst the UK’s less exemplary treatment of the second and third worlds in the past. The sun may have gone down on the empire, but now it seems like it will also go down on one of the empire’s few positive legacies.