The international radio station with the largest global audience and the one with the best-known name, the BBC World Service, began as the Empire Service on shortwave in 1932. Today, while most of its estimated weekly audience of 183 million (all figures given here are for 2007) continue to rely on direct transmission on shortwave and medium wave from the BBC’s own transmitters, it is also available via satellite, on mobile phones, on the Internet, and through hundreds of local radio stations in countries around the world. BBC World, a global television service in English, is funded and organized separately. Organized within the World Service itself was a new TV service in Arabic. On radio, the World Service broadcasts in English and 33 other languages.
The original Empire Service was intended to be a link between the metropolis and the immense empire Britain then ruled. In the vastly changed world of today, when Britain’s world role is much reduced, the English services are aimed both at mother-tongue English speakers and at the growing number of people for whom English is a major second language, one that they are comfortable to use as a source of news and information. The global weekly audience for English output is estimated at 38 million.
Services Around The World Africa
The largest audience for English is in Nigeria, where it is estimated from surveys that the weekly audience (presently mainly reliant on shortwave because the government there has put restrictions on local retransmission) is over 5 million, 15 percent of the global audience for English. The extraordinary success of the BBC’s African English output in Nigeria and elsewhere in Africa has undoubtedly arisen as a result of its daily reporting of events around the continent. Its main daily news magazine programs Focus on Africa and Network Africa are probably the most listened to radio news programs from any source in Africa. The BBC has an unrivalled network of reporters and stringers in Africa, almost all of them nationals of the countries from where they report. Sport, the arts, health issues, and daily life in African cities and rural areas make up much of the rest of the special English language programs specially made for the African continent.
French and Portuguese as well as services in indigenous African languages are broadcast and these also have large audiences. Since 1991, when effective central government collapsed in Somalia, the BBC’s Somali language service has in effect been the only truly national Somali radio service able to reach Somalis in all parts of a very divided country. It also has a large following among the now vast Somali diaspora, who can listen to the output via the Internet. A major service provided at the height of the 1991 crisis and in the years since has been a regular feature that seeks to put Somalis in touch with missing relatives and friends lost in the upheavals.
The World Service And Human Needs
This is a recurring feature of the BBC World Service. During and after major humanitarian crises, different parts of the output have been directed to informing and assisting those many people displaced and in danger. Similarly, the ethnic tragedies in Burundi and Rwanda in 1994 led to the establishment of a special Great Lakes service in the two languages of these countries, Kinyarwanda and Kirundi, bringing news and programs of special relevance to communities in conflict.
Meeting human needs for information has been at the heart of the World Service’s mission, and its many initiatives in this respect have usually been very successful. It was this feature of the World Service that prompted Kofi Annan, then secretary-general of the United Nations, to describe it in 1998 as “perhaps Britain’s greatest gift to the world this century.” Malcolm W. Browne wrote in the New York Times, “The BBC is for the free mind, what Oxfam is for the hungry” (quoted in BBC External Services 1982, 4). The importance of the BBC in meeting information needs in areas of crisis and human deprivation led during the 1990s to the establishment of the World Service Trust, an educational and development agency that had as its mission to “use the creative power of media to reduce poverty and promote human rights by inspiring people to build better lives” (BBC World Service Trust n.d.). This initiative came at a time when development agencies and governments in the developed world were beginning to realize the vital importance of improved communication of relevant information in the global fight against poverty, ignorance, and disease. Its many projects included broadcast series on such major global health problems as HIV/ AIDS and malaria.
The largest of the BBC’s 33 language services aside from English was the Arabic service. It was the first foreign-language broadcast when it started in 1938 as a British response to Italian fascist propaganda broadcasts to the Arab world. During major conflicts in the Middle East it reached very large audiences, especially in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf States. During the 1991 Gulf War its audience grew substantially in all countries where surveys were conducted at the time of the war, but since then the spread of satellite TV broadcasts and especially the success of Al Jazeera, the first Arab TV news channel to provide good journalism to the area, radio has been in some decline. It was with this in mind that the BBC launched an Arabic TV service in 1995, which was carried on a Saudi-owned subscription satellite channel. But when certain news items were cut in breach of strict agreements signed that this would not happen, the BBC ended the service. Some of the BBC Arab journalists made redundant by the closure moved to the newly established Al Jazeera and helped win this service the wide following that it later enjoyed. But 10 years later, in 2005, the World Service announced a new TV service to start in 2007. Funds for this new service were found by closing down 10 other language radio services.
History Of The World Service
There have been four distinct phases in the BBC World Service’s 75-year history. The first was the empire phase, from the beginning in 1932 for the next few years. This was then overtaken by the challenge of fascism and Nazism and the subsequent world war. At the start of hostilities in September 1939, there were broadcasts in English and just seven other languages. By 1945 the total number of other languages had risen to 45. For many the BBC was the voice of hope and freedom, especially after the fall of most of Europe to German conquest and when the UK was virtually alone. In many occupied countries the BBC was the only source of alternative news and the only voice of resistance.
After the war, new circumstances led to a major expansion of services to communist countries of Europe and East Asia, and this can be seen as the third phase, which continued until the end of communism in Europe. During the years immediately after the war, several west European language services established during the war years were closed and in their place new services were started, especially to the newly emerging countries in Africa.
The fourth phase followed the end of the Cold War. Major changes in the world of media posed several challenges to all international radio broadcasters. All of them relied heavily on shortwave. At the same time as communism ended, new technologies were beginning to be available, especially the Internet. That development was coincidental. But it had a big impact on all international radio transmissions. Several international services cut back heavily on shortwave because they believed, wrongly, that it was in terminal decline and would inevitably be replaced by new delivery systems. In some areas this did happen. But far more important than the issue of which delivery technology to use was another major development in media landscapes. This grew out of the ending of the world engagement between state-dominated economies and the free market. Until 1990 most countries in the world continued to have radio and television systems that were run as state institutions. This was especially true in the former Soviet bloc but it was also the case almost universally in the French, British, and other European nations’ former colonies in Africa and Asia. The end of the Cold War and the collapse of many state dominated economies brought in their wake a liberalization of the air waves. It became increasingly possible to deliver programs and services direct by satellite to the many new independent radio stations that emerged in many countries in all continents. But this was not possible everywhere, and even when it was, local rebroadcasts did not usually extend far beyond the cities in which they are located. It remained true that more than half the BBC World Service’s global radio audience continued to rely on shortwave.
Organization, Independence, And Policies
The vigorous independence of the BBC in its domestic services was a great strength of the World Service, a feature not enjoyed by other major international services such as the Voice of America, Deutsche Welle, or Radio France Internationale. The journalistic principles and practices of both the domestic and international services were the same. This enabled the BBC to assert that, despite the state funding of the World Service, it was not a government mouthpiece. Like the BBC in the UK, the World Service maintains a fierce independence. Surveys of audience opinion around the world showed that most listeners valued its independence, authority, comprehensiveness, and reliability.
There are problems, however, in appearances. Arabic broadcasting from Britain was originally a response to Italian fascist propaganda in Arabic that had been targeted at countries where Britain was actively involved – notably Egypt and Palestine. Some in the British government had doubts about whether the BBC was the right body to undertake the task, given its impartiality and practice of giving all sides to a story. And there were many within the BBC who did not really like the idea of being involved in something that was a response to someone else’s propaganda. It might make it look as if the BBC was now actively engaged in the same kind of thing. The BBC’s founder, John (later Lord) Reith, however, strongly believed that broadcasting in Arabic was a proper role for the BBC and that providing reliable and independent information was the best way to counteract propaganda. He won the argument. The government agreed at this point to provide the funds needed for international broadcasting by the BBC. Then began a relationship that was always difficult and at times strained. The BBC World Service received virtually all its funds from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO). For the financial year ending April 2007, the grant-in-aid was £239.5 million (US$470 million).
The FCO has sometimes tried to have influence on or be involved in decisions about matters of editorial policy. The BBC has always resisted this. However, we return to the matter of appearances and how the BBC looks to those to whom its services are directed. One major problem with the new emphasis on Arabic is that it makes the World Service very slanted in its global balance. Until the end of the twentieth century, it had a balanced output in terms of continent coverage. But with the closure of nearly all its European language services, cutbacks elsewhere, and what might be regarded as a very heavy emphasis on reaching Muslim areas (a TV service in Farsi for Iran was planned for 2008 and a similar service in Urdu for Pakistan) made it look as if the BBC World Service had made a special thrust toward reaching Muslims. It looked as if more than a third of the BBC’s expenditure would be on the Middle East. Was this the BBC doing the government’s bidding? Almost certainly not; in all probability the FCO would like to push this trend further and might well prefer to see the BBC pull out of many of the other languages altogether. The FCO had a Public Diplomacy Board, but the BBC was not a member and attended its meetings only as an observer. The BBC has always resisted the World Service being seen as any part of government’s international diplomacy. It remains committed to independent journalism and a truly international public service.
- Annan, K. (1998). Speech at the inauguration of the BBC News North America Bureau.
- BBC External Services (1982). Voice for the world: The work of the BBC external services. London: BBC. BBC World Service Trust (n.d.). Mission statement. At www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice/trust/aboutthetrust, accessed September 17, 2007.
- Mansell, G. (1982). Let truth be told: 50 years of BBC external broadcasting. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.
- Mytton, G. (ed.) (1993). Global audiences. London: John Libbey.
- Nelson, M. (1997). The war of the black heavens: The battles of western broadcasting in the Cold War. London and Washington, DC: Brassey’s.
- Partner, P. (1988). Arab voices: The BBC Arabic service 1938 –1988. London: BBC.
- Walker, A. (1992). A skyful of freedom: 60 years of the BBC World Service. London: Broadside Books.