Will sun set on BBC World Service? Radio: Trusted worldwide as an authoritative source of news and cultural information, the British Broadcasting Corporation's World Service faces a restructuring that critics say could harm its reputation.

Sun Journal

August 18, 1996|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

When the newly elected Parliament in the Soviet Republic of Latvia voted to declare independence from Moscow in 1990, BBC correspondent Bridget Kendall phoned the news instantly to London. The BBC World Service interrupted its Latvian language broadcast with a bulletin announcing the vote. When Kendall stepped outside moments later to gauge the Riga crowd's mood, she heard a baffling chant.

Not "Latvia." Not "Freedom." The throng was shouting in unison: "BBC! BBC! BBC!"

"Someone said, 'We heard it on BBC radio, and we knew it must be true,' " recalls Kendall, now a correspondent in Washington. "It was amazing."

Such authority, from the capitals of Europe to the remotest villages of Africa and Asia, is the legacy of the world's most listened-to international shortwave broadcast service. BBC says surveys show 140 million people tune to the World Service every week, listening in English and 43 other languages to an old-fashioned mix of music, book talk, current affairs -- and news, news, news. That dwarfs the Voice of America's audience of about 90 million, and BBC's other competitors.

But now devotees of Bush House, the venerable London home of the World Service, fear that this spectacular success is in danger. A proposed restructuring of the British Broadcasting Corporation would consolidate many World Service operations with BBC's domestic service.

The changes in part are BBC's attempt to keep up with the changing global media market. As more people around the world have a choice of dozens of radio and television channels -- even in places like post-Soviet Latvia -- the role for shortwave radio might be expected to shrink.

Yet the World Service claims the surveys it commissions in 30 countries show its audience is actually growing; the 140 million figure doesn't include China, Vietnam or Myanmar, where surveys aren't done. (It does include some Baltimoreans, who can hear BBC World Service from 5 to 6 a.m. weekdays on WJHU, 88.1 FM.)

Advocates of the restructuring say it will strengthen the long-term financial prospects of the World Service. Critics say it could erode a six-decade tradition of objective, knowledgeable reporting, and strip World Service assets to bolster domestic TV and radio.

The "Campaign to Save the World Service" is being led by retired BBC veterans, but it is backed by some eminent listeners. They include the Dalai Lama, South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu and former Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev, who tuned to the BBC while under house arrest during the 1991 coup.

When a BBC correspondent reported that the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, had protested the "dismembering" of the World Service earlier this month, top BBC management killed the story.

The dispute in London is on hold until October, when a report is due on the impact of the reshuffling on the World Service. But the controversy has caused many in and outside Britain to remark on the quality and reliability of an institution as widely respected as Oxford University, Scotland Yard or the British Museum.

It began in 1932 as the Empire Service, a sort of quaint remnant of the empire on which the sun once had never set. It came into its own during World War II, growing rapidly and establishing the impartiality that still defines it. The theory was that if BBC was candid in reporting Allied defeats, it would be more readily believed when it reported Allied victories.

The formula still serves. By statute, the World Service is editorially independent of the British government, even though its $209 million operating budget comes directly from the British Foreign Office. It aspires to report attacks carried out by the Irish Republican Army with no more emotion or emphasis than those of Tamil separatists or Chechen guerrillas. The World Service stylebook forbids the use of the word "terrorist" to label a violent militant group, since one person's terrorist is another person's freedom fighter.

The Voice of America, by contrast, like most government shortwave broadcasters, regularly presents official views of the U.S. government and airs programs on U.S. life that sometimes smack of boosterism. In the Soviet Union, where listeners were expert in detecting a whiff of propaganda, the BBC was widely considered more trustworthy than VOA.

Bob Jobbins, a 24-year BBC veteran who has reported from South America, Egypt and Singapore and now heads the World Service news operation, says that in many countries, the BBC is "in this slightly odd position of being almost local broadcasters. I mean, in Pakistan, 26 percent of the adult population listens to us," Jobbins said in an interview from London. "And in areas where domestic media are tightly controlled, we are the major source of information on local affairs."

Thomas M. Sutherland, the Scottish-born American agriculture professor who spent six and a half years as a hostage in Lebanon, says the BBC "was the reason I came out of it as sane as I did."

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