Implications of the BBC World Service Cuts

Written evidence from Sam Miller

Introduction:

· My name is Sam Miller. I am a former manager at the BBC World Service who now works as a journalist and writer in India.

· I have specialist knowledge of the Indian media market, and have travelled very widely throughout India over the last five years.

· I deplore the decision to cut the funding of World Service at a time when ‘soft power’ is increasingly recognised as a hugely effective means of diplomacy and with few of the risks associated with more heavy-handed foreign policy interventions.

· More specifically I deplore the decision to cut BBC Hindi service radio with its current audience of 10 million, saving just £750,000 p.a., at a time when British foreign policy is emphasising a wider and deeper engagement at all levels with India.

Argument

1. I have spent much of the last five years travelling around India, training Indian journalists and working on an all-India guidebook. During this period I met many listeners to the BBC Hindi service radio.

2. In the early 1990s I was a BBC correspondent in Delhi and from 1997 to 2004 I was managing editor, South Asia at BBC World Service. I am the author of Delhi: Adventures in a Megacity which was published in 2009 in India, the UK and the USA.

3. Despite the explosive growth of TV in urban India over the last decade, large sections of the Indian population remain poorly served by the media. The more than 10 million regular listeners to Hindi broadcasts of the BBC are largely drawn from these sections.

4. Among the key sections of the population with a much higher than average audience to Hindi radio programming are those who do not have easy access to TV sets, TV signals or a regular electricity supply.

5. These include Indian armed forces and paramilitaries working in sensitive locations, student hostels, people preparing for Indian administrative service entrance exams – and the Hindi broadcasts have a special importance for a wide range of people who are travelling, including journalists, bureaucrats and politicians.

6. The BBC Hindi programmes also reach large numbers of listeners in areas affected by Maoist-inspired violence in central India. This violence was described by the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as the most serious threat facing his country. Former BBC listeners are likely to switch to other foreign radio stations broadcasting in Hindi – of which the most important are Radio China International and, among Muslim listeners, Voice of Iran.

7. The only domestic radio competition to the BBC outside the cities is the state-controlled All India Radio which has a very low reputation for its news and current affairs, and is seen as a government mouthpiece. BBC Hindi radio’s reputation is almost entirely based on its unbiased coverage of news and current affairs.

8. Elsewhere, BBC audiences have been encouraged to migrate to newer media technologies. The nature of these cuts for Hindi radio means they will not have an opportunity to do so. The listeners affected, who listen on shortwave, do not have reliable Internet or TV services, and therefore will not be able to access the BBC any longer – at all.

9. The BBC’s name and reputation in Hindi has been built up over more than 50 years. The decision to cut the service to provide savings of £750K p.a. will entail throwing away, overnight, the benefits of these 50 years of investments.

10. The existence of BBC Hindi broadcasts also gives the BBC’s English-language broadcasts a depth and access that they would otherwise not have. Politicians – particularly from the Hindi-speaking north – know and interact most with the BBC through the Hindi service. Hindi service radio had a wide range of local part-time correspondents and information suppliers who also provide critical inputs to the rest of the BBC.

11. The closure of Hindi service radio would be a major blow to the WS service as whole, reducing its audience, instantaneously, by more than 10 million.

12. Overall, it is appropriate that the BBC World Service be held accountable for the decisions it makes and priorities it sets forth. And these will, on occasion, involve a reprioritisation which involves the closing of less-effective services. However, effective services with large audiences in places which are focus areas for British foreign policy should not be candidates for closure.

13. Furthermore, there is case to be made for actually increasing the World Service grant in a period of austerity, since it provides more cost-effective ‘soft power’ engagements, than often risky resource-heavy larger-scale diplomatic interventions.

9 February 2011