When Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev was put under house arrest in the Crimea in 1993, he turned to what he considered the most reliable source of information on what was happening back in Moscow: the BBC World Service radio.
During the Iranian revolution of 1978-79, Iranians frequently would stop foreign correspondents on the street and ask, “Are you BBC?” Unable to trust their national radio, millions of them tuned in to the BBC World Service to find out what was happening in their own country.
Held hostage in Lebanon and cut off from any news for two years, British television reporter John McCarthy suddenly was given access to the BBC World Service by his captors in 1988, and he wept. “It gave me and my fellow hostages a real reason for keeping going,” he said.
Anecdotes such as these could be recounted almost endlessly. Through a history that stretches to the early days of radio, the BBC World Service has gained a reputation as the world’s premier international broadcasting service.
It broadcasts in English and 42 other languages to an audience of 140 million people - and that does not include China, where reliable audience surveys cannot be conducted.
Its unbiased news and current-affairs programs penetrate the fog of propaganda and lies disseminated by totalitarian regimes and provide information to people in remote rural areas otherwise cut off from the world. It also serves as a language laboratory for millions who want to learn or improve their English.
It is funded by the British Foreign Office, to the tune of $270 million a year, but enjoys complete editorial independence from the government.
It earns no money for Britain, but it does earn for the country enormous international prestige and respect. The World Service is one of the things Britain does best.
Thus, when BBC Director General John Birt announced a radical restructuring of the World Service last month, he was greeted by an anguished national outcry that is still building up a large head of steam.
Gorbachev himself protested. So did the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa. So too did 236 members of Parliament from all parties, all living former directors of the World Service, much of the BBC staff and leading British writers, artists, musicians, church leaders and academics.
The Guardian newspaper, which called Birt’s changes “an act of cultural vandalism,” has begun a front-page feature headed “Save the World Service.” Its letters column has been full of protests about the changes.
Birt’s reform, drawn up without consultation with anyone in the World Service, calls for all English news, current affairs and general programming to be integrated with the BBC’s domestic radio and television news-gathering and programming operations.
To some outsiders, this may seem an arcane journalistic issue. To Birt’s legion of critics, it strikes at the heart of what makes the World Service distinctive and valuable.
One of the keys to its success and credibility, many would argue, is that the World Service reports on international events from a truly international, as opposed to a British, perspective. The same cannot be said of BBC domestic outlets, and understandably so.
Former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher expressed anger during the Falklands War over the fact the World Service insisted on referring in a detached way to “the British,” as though the nation’s forces fighting there were almost a foreign army. She thought the terminology was unpatriotic.
The World Service’s ability to step back from the news and take a detached perspective is generally regarded as one of its greatest strengths, building trust around the globe in the reliability of its reporting.
John Tusa, a former World Service managing director who helped spark the campaign against Birt’s reform, said it threatens to do “irreparable damage.”
In the future, he said, World Service staff may find themselves having to deal with managers with no interest in or knowledge of world affairs, who will ask, “Why do you need to go to Liechtenstein, and where is it anyway?”
Sir David Steel, former leader of the Liberal Democratic Party, said parliamentary opposition to Birt’s plans represent “genuine all-party outrage … They will have to back down.”
Birt, who was brought into the BBC in 1992 from an independent television production company, gives no indication of backing down. He went on vacation last week after making it known he would resist any move by the Foreign Office, despite its funding of the World Service, to interfere in its management.
Birt acknowledged he had not consulted the Foreign Office or World Service managers about his changes because he knew any discussions would have been “extremely divisive.”
Birt defended his changes as being made in the interest of management efficiency and said they also had been made necessary by Foreign Office cuts in World Service funding. The budget next year will be cut by $8.3 million.
Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind called in BBC Chairman Sir Christopher Bland on Wednesday to discuss his concerns about the effect of Birt’s changes and persuaded him to set up a joint working group to look into these concerns.