Implications of BBC World Service Cuts - Foreign Affairs Committee Contents


Written evidence from Ms A. Corinne Podger

1.  I am writing to urge a rethink of the closure of services at the BBC World Service. I am a former BBC World Service journalist and am now a senior journalist at ABC Radio Australia, a direct and deliberate competitor to the World Service in the Asia-Pacific region. While my loyalties are to those of my current employer, I worked at the BBC for many years and believe that it has a role to "export Britain" to this key region of the world.

2.  I am opposed to the cuts in general, but would raise some concerns with regard to specific services facing cuts:

2(a)  Chinese service

While China is widely seen as "the Asian giant" in economic terms, the vast majority of Chinese still live in straitened circumstances, and internet access is:

(i)  not easily accessible to many; and

(ii)  heavily censored.

Chinese people are very well aware of the fact that their country will soon eclipse the US in economic terms, and that their manufacturing sector is fuelling post-GFC economic survival around the world. To deprive the people of China, whose news is already heavily censored, of an external shortwave voice informing them of the benefits of democracy and the achievements of the West is to lose a crucial opportunity to educate a vast mass of people whose government already, to a certain extent, runs the affairs of other countries via trade. It is easy to forget China in Europe; having lived in both Australasia and Europe, I know this personally. However the Chinese are keenly aware of their rise to dominance while Europe struggles with recession and xenophobia.

2(b)  Hindi service

India is equally en route to become one of the largest economies in the world. It is also a former British colony. India has always been a net exporter of people (most of whom are working class) to the United States, Canada, Australia, the Asia-Pacific (eg Fiji), and Africa. To communicate in Hindi is to reach a fifth of the world's population within India, and tens of millions of Indian expats all over the world. It is the opportunity to communicate to these people the achievements of the West, and encourages them to maintain a cultural fondness for Britain.

2(c)  Indonesian service

Indonesia is the world's most populous Muslim country. I find it incredible that the BBC is building up its Arabic service, and failing to take account of Indonesia. Terrorism, if I may use that word, is already a scourge for Indonesia's Muslims; witness the Bali bombings in 2002 and 2006. If the West is to communicate meaningfully with the Muslim world, Indonesia—and Bahasa Indonesian—MUST be part of that picture.

3.  BBC WORLD SERVICE AND "EXPORTING BRITAIN"

I am from Australia. I lived in Britain from 1995-2006 and worked for the BBC World Service as a journalist for most of that time. I now live in Australia, where I work with the BBC World Service's direct competitor in the region, ABC Radio Australia. So I am personally and professionally aware that Britain must make tough economic choices in these difficult times. To cut back the BBC World Service is absurd; the money saved is paltry in comparison to the benefits to be gained by maintaining the current service. As I write, the ABC is in the process of expansion - mimicking, I would add, the BBC with a new 24-hour cable television news channel. It also maintains Radio Australia, which is where I now work, and which has services in Mandarin Chinese, Indonesian, Vietnamese, French, Tok Pisin (from PNG) and Khmer. The suggestion that Radio Australia would wind up its Chinese or Indonesian services would be met with astonished laughter, because there is a clear understanding in Australia that China has kept the world from a repeat of the 1930s Depression, and that digging stuff out of the ground and selling it to the Chinese is keeping this country afloat economically. We are, to sum up, keenly aware of the influence of China, and the ABC has every intention, as I understand it, to maintain some form of Australian influence in return.

I would urge this parliamentary inquiry to remember that those who were alive during the independence era of the 1940s-60s are now into retirement. New generations - especially in Asia and the Pacific, where the median age in many countries is under 30 - have no cultural memory of Britain. Many of these former colonies have no significant expat community in Britain; no grandmothers, no cousins, no friends. They are unlikely to visit or work there. Consequently they will take no more interest in the UK than, say, Portugal or Belize, unless they have a reason to do so. The BBC World Service IS THAT REASON. It brings British ideas, values, habits and interests to the world. To cut ties to 30 million people in increasingly influential countries (China, India, Indonesia) or indeed countries where democracy is under threat (Swahili and Portuguese-speaking regions of Africa) is a retrograde step of embarrassing proportions. It has taken the BBC decades to build its audience, and arguably the timing of its founding—coinciding as it did with the end of the colonial era - made the BBC World Service a soft-landing alternative to British domination; it replaced antipathy with sympathy—even nostalgia—in the hearts of millions. It is a great shame that a recession of a few years' duration will cost Britain that influence. You could not put a price tag on restoring it, because once it is lost, it will be lost forever.

4.  RECOMMENDATIONS

4(a)  That the decision to suspend any services, especially those in Chinese, Hindi and Indonesian, be reversed as a matter of urgency.

4(b)  That an impact study of the loss of any services be carried out in consultation with communities in those countries and with expat communities in key countries (eg the US) prior to the suspension of any services

4(c)  That an impact study on the loss of British influence in countries affected by the World Service cuts be carried out in order to ascertain the economic and diplomatic cost to British influence abroad, prior to the implementation of any cuts. You need to be sure that you are getting value for money.

27 January 2011


 
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Prepared 13 April 2011