Leaving the BBC and the UK

Posted on 3 July 2011


Pickets outside Bush House, World Service HQ, have become something of the norm recently

After five months of anticipation, the time has come. Last week I left the BBC – and today I’m waving goodbye to the UK. 

Heathrow Terminal One looms large on the horizon.

It’s a weird feeling as, deep down, it feels like I’m not leaving either of them, the BBC or the UK, completely safe and well.

It feels like I’m walking out on a sick relative – one who’s probably going to be fine… eventually. But it’s still a bit impolite even if you can’t do anything about the situation yourself (and I don’t kid myself that I could).

The BBC feels like it’s at a crossroads and that the path it takes in the next few years could either future-proof it for the next generation or, certainly in terms of BBC World Service, destroy its soul and what it stands for for good.

When I first experienced working life at the the World Service back in 2005 the welcome pack proudly boasted about its 44 broadcast languages. Now the language service total stands at 27 and not all of them have radio anymore.

Over the years, the World Service has broadcast in 60 languages – some for a year or two (like Welsh for the Welsh-speaking colony in the Patagonia region of Argentina) – and some haven’t stopped since the 1930s and ’40s (like English and BBC Arabic).

Why do things change? Cuts, trade-offs, changes in Foreign Office priorities and new global strategies.

The recent £2.2m ‘funding u-turn’ by the government over cuts to the World Service’s budget (which is a tiny amount) will no doubt be ploughed wholly or mainly into the Arabic service, which isn’t utterly surprising given ongoing events in the Arab World.

BBC Arabic studio

BBC Arabic gets a big slice of World Service money

It’s the one thing that the FCO has control over – aside from the budget: the choice over which countries are strategic, i.e. where that budget is spent. All service closures and alterations are vetted by them.

I’ve no doubt that the BBC will pull through. But the question is rather: will it be the same BBC that comes out the other side? This, mark ye well, is also contingent on what happens when the Foreign Office grant-in-aid lifeline is finally severed and funding responsibilities transfer to the BBC  in 2014.

I can’t help wondering what the BBC bosses will make of channelling money into Swahili and Uzbek services when another series of Strictly needs financing.

That said, the online side of the Russian Service seems to be thriving in a multi-platform wonderland – clicks are up, more video being produced… but radio is a mere ghostly outline of its former glorious self.

The final months of work there felt markedly different from the first few years: now it felt as if what we were doing didn’t count for anything. We weren’t that lifeline radio that thousands, perhaps millions, relied on for information through the smog of Russian state media – we’d become a podcast-cum-newspaper.

Those with internet access – the only people now able to consume BBC Russian Service products – already have access to the free press… Russia certainly hasn’t made a habit of blocking the internet.

We were providing news and views to those without access to non-Kremlin-skewed media – and it’s those people, outside the big cities, who have lost out (bearing in mind that it’s only about 30% of the Russian population who has regular access to the internet). Whereas the people in the cities – who are more online-savvy and worldly-wise – are likely not to have noticed anything new…

Somehow it feels wrong, and plenty of people are calling the overhaul ‘short-sighted’. Who knows, perhaps they are being equally so. As ever, time will tell.

The World Service as a whole, rightly or wrongly, short-sightedly or long-sightedly, is now moving away from traditional radio broadcasting. You have to ask who it’s really going to be for once traditional radio broadcasting ends. But to be positive, I feel privileged to have played a role in its final chapters.

And once I’m in Brazil, I’m confident this won’t be the last time the BBC and I will cross paths. It’s just a TTFN.

The UK, on the other hand, feels like it’s in the hands of some rather abusive-for-what-we-think-is-for-your-own-good parents.

The less I say about it, probably the better – but I do think that it’s the right time to be looking at engaging more convincingly with formerly underrated partners – and Brazil is certainly in their ranks.

This was highlighted recently by Nick Clegg’s whistlestop business trip to Brasília and São Paulo – a trip which had been postponed from the winter, something that the Brazilians didn’t think much of.

Former Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva left a legacy of lifting millions out of poverty

I think it’s the right time and an exciting period to be experiencing these booming economies – China, India and the like. Some of them, including China, have a lot of work to do on their human rights policies and attitude to their own people.

But unlikely as it might sound, progressive and socialist Brazil seems to be able to do the impossible: both have a successful social programme –  lifting millions out of poverty – whilst driving up its global financial power.

Yes, there are some trade-offs to be made – and people are right to scrutinise these. One of the trade-offs I’m most concerned about is the impact on Brazil’s unique and globally-important natural resources – the Amazon rainforest and the Pantanal wetlands.

People are also wondering whether the massive hike in property prices (which has been a major factor in driving Brazil’s economy upwards) is set to become a bubble that could be primed to burst.

Whatever the weather, certainly one to watch, ol’ Brazil.

The UK should clearly take advantage of its good links with the South American powerhouse – there are certainly plenty of its citizens living in the UK (over 50,000) – and surely great things could come from UK-Brazil cooperation. For both countries, in fact.

I mean… just look at Wagner from the X Factor…


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Posted in: Just for fun