‘We must be free or die, who speak the tongue that Shakespeare spake; the faith and morals hold which Milton held.’ Or so thought the lofty William Wordsworth in It Is Not To Be Thought Of in 1802. The darlings of the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office are evidently not so concerned about this idea, running about chopping budgets to the BBC World Service with greater savagery than a drunken gardener in a rose garden.
Talk of freedom is often a cheap commodity where it reigns. We can always debate whether the variety offered in Britain is of a high order, having been picked upon over the years by intrusive authorities with their surveillance and anti-terror measures. The nanny state is also one that is far from free. But the World Service arm of the Beeb has always been considered something of a treasure. Wordsworth’s dreamy adulation of the English language seems a bit out of place with the World Service’s enormous array of language services today. Shakespeare does, after all, resound in different tongues with equal effect.
The outlined cuts are some of the most profound and deepest in the broadcaster’s 79-year history. Five foreign-language services are up for the chop (the original number proposed was thirteen), not to mention a quarter of the staff. The languages in question being affected are Portuguese for Africa, Caribbean English, Macedonian, Serbian and Albanian. Short wave radio services are being buried. The areas slated for a reduction of services are Sub-Saharan Africa, Russia, China and India. 30 million listeners will be lost. The online budget will also be slashed by a quarter – some £103m, including the departure of 360 staff (Guardian, Jan 29).
Academics and specialists will no doubt be consulting their latest lexicons of international relations to find out what this axing might do to Britain’s influence overseas. The term ‘soft power’, which involves persuasiveness and carrots rather than brute force and sticks, is something that has already been mentioned.
The axing of the Portuguese for Africa service, one commenced in 1939, is something that repressive regimes might well chortle at. For Elias Isaac, country director of the Open Society Institute Angola, ‘This is a big blow to democracy, the right to information and freedom of the press’ (Guardian, Jan 28). Given that parts of Africa place much in their radio listening – far more than other forms of media – the loss will be acutely felt. For Joseph Hanlon, former BBC World Service stringer in Mozambique, foreign office officials had committed something akin to policy suicide. ‘If you’re going to have a serious foreign policy you should concentrate on what you are good at, and in Britain’s case that’s the BBC’ (Guardian, Jan 28).
Those on the Tory side of government have also voiced similar concerns. Tory MP, Geoffrey Clifton-Brown expressed dismay at the policy announcement. ‘Does [Foreign Secretary William] Hague accept also that it is not just the number of people who receive a service that counts? It is precisely minorities in difficult parts of the world who need truth and independent advice’ (The Telegraph, Jan 30).
The victory of the bookkeepers and economic fundamentalists suggests a smaller Britain in the making, one less keen to embrace the vast contacts, resources and influence it has fostered over decades of international broadcasting. Counting chips seems far more interesting to them than counting influence. The House of Commons foreign affairs select committee, chaired by Conservative MP Richard Ottaway, has promised an inquiry into the implications of the cuts, and the results will make interesting reading. Perhaps one of its findings will be this: More can often be attained through well-directed broadcast than a misguided missile.