World broadcaster that has lost its global view

PUBLISHED : Monday, 21 June, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 21 June, 2010, 12:00am

If there is one global voice that has a deserved reputation for truth, honesty, fairness, awareness, understanding and balance, it is the BBC and its World Service radio programmes.

For generations and millions of people living behind the Iron Curtain, for Burmese, Chinese and others brave enough to tune in to foreign broadcasts, for Africans repressed by civil war and turmoil, the BBC World Service in English and in local languages has been a voice of accurate news penetrating the gloomy propaganda of communism, dictatorship, repressive or kleptocratic governments.

With the growing global reach of the internet and television channels, the BBC should be on the cusp of a golden age as an international broadcaster and a promoter of debate about vital issues. There is a need for an honest broadcaster that can see over national borders and understand the world.

Instead, the BBC's reputation is at risk from a strange mixture of 'little England' and a tabloid mentality. This is particularly marked in the international television brand known as BBC World News. The World Service radio still tries to preserve traditional values in spite of pressures on it.

BBC World News enthusiastically yells the latest headlines, like a tabloid newspaper with a bold front page but little background or explanation inside. Repetition is the order of the hour and the day. If you watch for two hours, you get about 20 minutes of news repeated twice, 90 seconds of headlines repeated six times, 10 minutes of business duplicated, 10 minutes of sport, ditto, a few minutes of weather, a few adverts and endless, mindless promotions of future programmes.

In the business programmes, the presenters are almost cheerleaders for the market. Asia is badly served, with business coverage run from Singapore.

What was disgracefully surprising was the burst of 'little Britain' during the British general election. For hours at a time, BBC World News forgot the world outside and broadcast only about the misty little Westminster district of Britain.

Even outside the election, BBC World reporters often talk of 'our government' - demonstrating the laziness of a correspondent filing for the domestic network and not taking the rest of the world seriously by doing a slightly different report.

Is it because BBC World News is run from Shepherds Bush in West London, where its producers and presenters rub shoulders with British television types and so follow domestic standards?

Dramatically different, the BBC World Service radio headquarters at Bush House, in central London, is a cosmopolitan place. In its corridors, canteens and studios many different nationalities rub shoulders, including speakers of Arabic, Bengali, Chinese, Hausa, Hindi, Persian and Swahili, so there is a much more international buzz. BBC bean counters have decreed that the World Service radio should move to a revamped Broadcasting House off Oxford Street, with the risk that it will become the poor relation to British broadcasters who can hardly see beyond the misty islands.

There are some simple remedies. Kidnap BBC bigwigs and make them live in Bush House for a week, to understand that the global broadcast services are the BBC's - and Britain's - most precious asset. Give news a bigger canvas of at least an hour and go into depth with sharp background and comment.

Give good correspondents greater time to explore, show their knowledge and their countries. Get beyond the crash-bang-wallop news, and take Asia and Africa seriously. Close the Singapore business office and establish business offices in Hong Kong and Japan. Put a huge banner up with your new motto: 'BBC World - the voice of the world.' And live up to it.

Kevin Rafferty is a political commentator