BBC World Service’s vices

by and

HONG KONG — If there is one global voice that has a deserved reputation for truth, honesty, fairness, awareness, understanding and balance, it is the BBC, as almost everyone knows the British Broadcasting Corp., and its World Service radio programs.

For generations and millions of people living behind the Iron Curtain, for Burmese, Chinese and others brave enough to tune in to foreign broadcasts, for Africans repressed by civil war and turmoil, the BBC World Service in English and in local languages has been a voice of truth and hope penetrating the gloomy propaganda of communism, dictatorship, repression and, sometimes, criminally kleptocratic or stupid governments.

With the growing global reach of the Internet and world television channels, the BBC should be on the cusp of a golden age as an international broadcaster and promoter of debate about issues vital to the future of the planet. Instead the reputation is at risk from a strange mixture of little England and a tabloid mentality.

It is as if “Auntie Beeb,” the affectionate nickname for the BBC, has had a touch of something or been in the sun too long or taken a dram too much of the hard stuff and started to raise her skirts to reveal, well, not her best assets.

This is particularly marked in the international television brand, known as BBC World News. World Service radio still tries to preserve traditional values in spite of pressures on it.

On TV, the BBC yells the latest headlines, like a tabloid newspaper with a bold front page but with little background or explanation inside.

Yes, BBC World does run features. One fluffily examined why East African countries, unlike West Africans, had never made the World Cup finals. It was broadcast on every hour for 16 hours.

Repetition is the order of the hour and day. If you watch for two hours, you get about 21 minutes of news repeated twice, 90 seconds of headlines repeated six times, 10 minutes of business duplicated, 10 minutes of sport ditto, a few minutes of weather where forecasters struggle with foreign place names, a few advertisements and endless, mindless promotions of future programs, often proclaiming “only on BBC World News.”

What is most depressing is to come back six, 12 or 16 hours later to find that the BBC World has hardly changed except that the editors have shuffled the pack of the same items.

In the business programs — which take more time on television than on the radio — one of World Service radio’s weaknesses — the presenters are almost cheerleaders for the market. One frequently cheerfully announces, “Welcome to the show.” Asia is badly served, with business coverage run from Singapore and news of Japanese motor companies often delivered from a car showroom in Singapore.

What was disgracefully surprising was the burst of “little Britain” during the U.K. general election. For hours at a time, especially when the election was called, on voting day and as David Cameron and Nick Clegg and their parties struggled to form an unlikely coalition government, BBC World News forgot the world outside and broadcast only about the misty little Westminster district.

When Prime Minister Gordon Brown went to see Queen Elizabeth to request an election, BBC World followed him breathlessly and tracked his journey by helicopter. Since his journey had been expected for weeks, it was only worth a simple confirmation statement — 10 seconds maximum — that Brown, as expected, had called the election for May 6. Move on. The world moves on.

Similarly during and immediately after the election, nothing existed for BBC World except the U.K. Even when the discussions were going on behind closed doors, the talking heads yapped on and on, saying nothing at yawning length.

This was not news: This was indulgence of expensive expenses. Did some senior executive just decide to throw some of the bills for hiring the helicopter and the special election studio outside Parliament at BBC World or did they instruct the global channel to go local?

Even outside the election, BBC World reporters often talk of “our government” or “our mobile telephone rates,” not bothering to take the rest of the world seriously by doing a slightly different report.

BBC World, sadly, is betraying its name. It has the advantage of access to millions of living rooms all over the world, something that newspaper like The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal don’t have with their headquarters and public in one country. The Financial Times may be an exception with its multitude of printing plants and international staff. The International Herald Tribune has become less international since it boasted that it is “the global edition of The New York Times,” effectively more New York, less global.

Is it because BBC World News TV is run from Shepherds Bush in West London, where producers and presenters rub shoulders with British TV types, that it follows domestic standards? Indeed, some of the BBC World presenters do double duty, appearing on BBC World, then reading the domestic news. Could it also be that radio is more conducive to discussion and careful thinking than television with its insistent demand for color and pictures?

Dramatically different, BBC World Service radio headquarters at Bush House in central London, just outside the City of London, is a cosmopolitan place. In its corridors, canteens and studios many different nationalities rub shoulders, including speakers of Arabic, Bengali, Chinese, Hausa, Hindi, Persian, Swahili, so there is a much more international buzz. BBC bean counters have decreed that the World Service radio should move from Bush House to a revamped Broadcasting House off Oxford Street. I hope they will not become the poor relation to British broadcasters who can hardly see beyond the misty islands.

There are some simple remedies. Kidnap BBC British bigwigs and make them live in Bush House for a week so that they understand that the global broadcast services are the BBC’s — and Britain’s — most precious asset. Give news a bigger canvas of at least an hour, preferably two, and go into depth with sharp background and comment. If the BBC has its own expert, let him or her raise questions and make honest comments.

Give your good correspondents, like Roland Buerk in Tokyo and John Sudworth in Seoul, greater time to explore, show their knowledge and their countries. Get beyond the crash-bang-wallop news and take India, Asia and Africa seriously.

Close the Singapore business office and establish business offices in Hong Kong and Japan. Ban the rude expression “just briefly” and forbid “only on BBC World.” Put a huge banner up with your new motto, “BBC World, the voice of the world.”

Kevin Rafferty, a freelance writer, has listened to and been enlightened by BBC World Service for 40 years.