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25 July 1996

Who Needs the World Service?

The chattering classes have become more vocal than ever since the-man-they-love-to-hate John Birt announced a major overhaul of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) on 16 July. Birt's plans will downgrade the BBC World Service to the point of no return, his critics claim. The Guardian went into action immediately, launching a campaign to 'save the World Service' and providing a platform for all sorts of eminent personalities (Archbishop Robert Runcie, the most senior cleric in the Church of England; John Peel, senior dj to the pagan hordes at summer festivals) to reminisce about what the World Service has meant to them over the years. Taking their lead from the Guardian, backbenchers from across the parliamentary spectrum are now rallying to the cause of the World Service. They see it as an issue of national siginficance which transcends party-politicking.

The defenders of the World Service are united in assuming that the rest of the globe somehow benefits from listening to the BBC. The world would be a poorer place, they claim, without the voice of 'impartiality' broadcasting from Bush House in the Strand. But the World Service only sounds impartial to them, because it chimes in with their own pro-British bias. For as long as radio has been in existence, Britain has been plundering and manipulating the countries of the Third World. Meanwhile the World Service has constantly conveyed the hollow British claim that 'we're doing it for your own good.' 'World Service' is a misnomer: it has always been an instrument of propaganda serving exclusively British interests.

The clamour of the chattering classes combines self-interest with a spurious magnanimity. In their heart of hearts, they really believe that the Third World would be better off if only it could learn to reproduce the cultural mores of good old Blighty. For them, the combination of warm beer, spinsters on bicycles and the sound of leather on willow (a tableau which is readily brought to mind by the World Service), is not just an expression of Englishness; it is the quintessence of civilisation itself (someone like John Peel might like to smoke a joint between sips of warm beer, but the effect is largely the same). As far as the chattering classes are concerned, the well-being of world civilisation is synonymous with the dissemination of Englishness via the World Service; and it wounds them deeply to think that the propagation of the gospel of English civilisation is about to be reduced along with the programme-making capacity at Bush House.

While the World Service is assumed to be a good influence on the Third World, other global networks are perceived as malign influences. Whenever Ted Turner (CNN) or Rupert Murdoch (News Corporation) extend the reach of their media conglomerates, English voices are raised in horror at the thought of indigenuous cultures being corrupted by satellite television and the culture of instant gratification associated with it. If the British did not invent hypocrisy, they have certainly made it their own.

Other commentators have noted that Britain now suffers from 'mourning sickness'. There's nothing today's Britons enjoy more than a good wake; and the campaign to 'save the World Service' has already been influenced by this morbid mood. World Service aficionados have taken to leaving flowers in front of Bush House, as if in memory of the dead. Their campaign has only just begun and already its failure is assumed. What a sad bunch!

Andrew Calcutt
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