When John Simpson interviewed Burma’s pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi last November, the most striking thing about her was her English accent. It was very old-school received pronunciation, exactly what one used to hear on the BBC World Service years ago, all prim and proper. She explained to him at the time that she listened to the BBC a lot while she was under house arrest, and she elaborated on the topic in the Telegraph yesterday. According to Aung San Suu Kyi: my love for the Hairy Cornflake, she particularly enjoyed listening to music which, she laments, is not often heard on the service any more.
The reason for that, I suspect, and for the timing of the interview, becomes clearer with today’s story: BBC World Service receives £2.2m funding boost. The World Service has been subjected to a massive 16% budget cut, on top of many cutbacks in services over the years. One such cut, I would guess, is to play less music and pay less in royalties which would be why Ms Suu Kyi can’t hear any any more. As well as cutting expenditure, the World Service is also cutting its workforce by a whopping 25% and dropping still more language services. All of this is deeply depressing. But it must be good news that William Hague has found £2.2 million to give a boost to the World Service, surely? Not really. A 16% cut on a budget of £270 million is £43.2 million. Giving the corporation £2.2 million back still leaves it £41 million down. That £2.2 million is much less than 1%. It’s chicken feed.
When I lived in Germany, I used to listen to the World Service regularly, it was my strongest link back to England. Ex-pats are inordinately attached to the traditions of their native land and I can still hear Lillibullero, that jaunty, bouncing melody that introduced the news at One o-clock each day with more than a twinge of nostalgia. Not parochial news from and about England, but truly world news, events that were shaping the world we lived in that most of my compatriots back home would be blissfully ignorant of. You can hear the tune here.
What the World Service does for us and our standing in the world is enormous, but the benefits are all intangibles. And that’s a problem in this balance-sheet driven world; the World Service doesn’t make a profit for us. Last year there were 188 million listeners and audiences in Persian, Urdu and Arabic are increasing. What built it’s reputation is that from the start the news was written and presented by serious journalists, the best in the business for objectivity, it wasn’t “British propaganda”, it was honest and unbiased news reportage. Listeners across the world, particularly in oppressed states, could tune in to hear the news in their own language about what was going on in their own country. They did not have to believe what their rulers were telling them.
In an age when Facebook and Twitter can be used to stir revolution, the BBC World Service is still a significant force for good. So does it matter that Aung San Suu Kyi likes us? With respect, no. It’s good that she shares values with us, but what matters more is that dictators the world over don’t like us because we are able to talk directly to their people and tell them the truth.
Isn’t truth supposed to be mightier than the sword?