The BBC's Foreign Language Cuts Are Britain's Loss

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Early days of the BBC. Hulton-Deutsch Collection-Corbis

It was my grandfather’s secret life and hidden ritual, but one that he shared with millions across the globe. Throughout the 1970s, in his tiny Kiev apartment, my grandfather would wait until his extended family was asleep, tiptoe to the kitchen, quietly switch on the transistor Spidola radio, and gently push the dial to shortwave. He wiggled and waved the antenna to dispel the fog of jamming, climbed on chairs and tables to get the best reception, steered the dial in between transmissions of East German pop and Soviet military bands, pressed his ear tight to the speaker, and, through the hiss and crackle, made his way to these magical words: “This is the Russian Service of the BBC. The time in London is 10 o’clock.” And with these words, spoken in his language but with a British calm, came the relief that there was another, better, freer world. “London time” was not just a time zone, but a state of mind my grandfather could share, in his cramped Soviet kitchen connected to the mackerel sky over the London Strand, where from the World Service of the BBC a thousand voices in more than 30 languages all spoke of one idea to millions of listeners worldwide. Many of the listeners were risking their freedom: tuning in meant the secret police would be on their way, the knock on the door imminent. But it was worth it, just to hear those words: “BBC. The time in London is … ”

On March 22, many of the BBC Radio Foreign Language Services were silenced as part of the British government’s budget cuts. No longer will the BBC talk on the airwaves in Russian, Hindi, Mandarin, Turkish, Vietnamese, Azeri, Ukrainian, Albanian, Cuban-Spanish, Portuguese-African, Serbian, Albanian, or Macedonian. The station will have 30 million fewer listeners a week. There will be some websites and podcasts in the dropped languages, but these will be of limited relevance. Even in a fairly developed country like Russia, only 20 percent of the population has access to Internet connections fast enough to listen to audio podcasts.

Should Britain care? Has it lost anything?

I am biased. After being exiled from the Soviet Union in the late ’70s, my father drifted around Europe, baby me in tow, until he was given a home by the BBC’s Russian Service. During holidays and half-term he would let me come with him to work, to that island on the Strand known as Bush House. It was a wondrous island for a child. As soon as my father was locked in the aquarium of the broadcasting studio, I was free to roam every floor. Down the wide stairs I went—around me every color and ethnicity the world knows, all speaking, shouting English in different accents. All typing, smoking, sprinting between slamming doors to break the latest news. The programs were edited on reel-to-reels, the tape cut with tiny, deadly blades. I’d stuff my pockets full of outtakes from the floor. The hard-edged tape scratched my palms. I fancied myself a rescuer, saving voices destined for the bin.

The inhabitants of Bush House were all troops in a war. Every other journalist was a great exiled poet or minister-in-waiting. Every word they broadcast to Prague, Moscow, Tehran, Saigon, Havana, and Warsaw was treasured in their home countries. My father put on a radio version of Václav Havel’s plays—the first time most people in the U.S.S.R. had heard the imprisoned dramatist’s work. The Polish Service gave almost unlimited airtime to an upstart union leader in Gdansk called Lech Walesa; it was largely via the BBC Polish Service that the rest of Poland found out about Solidarnosc. When my father was too busy, I would play football in the long, purple-lit marble corridors with Egon from the Slovak Service. He would later be Havel’s deputy prime minister, but when I was 8 I beat him at penalties. In 1991, when Mikhail Gorbachev was arrested in Crimea during the communist putsch, he stayed in touch with the rest of the world by listening to the Russian Service. My father phoned Margaret Thatcher’s office to request an interview. “She never gives interviews by phone,” the civil servant said. “Tell Margaret her friend Mikhail is about to be killed,” said my father. Thatcher gave the rarest of telephone interviews, less an interview than a direct message to her friend Mikhail. Margaret said she wouldn’t let him down.

The lights in the Bush House canteen and Members’ Bar never went out. Never. Those were my favorite places in the building: that conspiratorial excitement, the word “revolution” exclaimed over shepherd’s pie and gin-and-tonics. Britain had lost its political empire, but it still had its intellectual one. The BBC spoke to its audiences in their own languages, yet it was as if those languages had been infected with something very British. It wasn’t simply a case of delivering accurate information. It was the polyphony of views, the (essentially British) sharp debate that contrasted so clearly with the dull monotone and state-dictated voice-overs typical of broadcasting behind the Iron Curtain.

The ripples from those airwaves can be felt now. Meet Marat. Marat is one of thousands of Russian multimillionaires who make their home in London. He brings a ridiculous amount of money into the British economy. Marat could afford to live in any tax-free paradise; he chooses London. As a teenager growing up in industrial Samara in the 1980s, Marat would puff on weed, lie down on the floor, close his eyes, and tune in to Seva Novgorodtsev on the Russian Service. Most Brits have never heard of Seva, but he’s one the country’s greatest assets. Seva was as important as Gorbachev, Reagan, and Thatcher in bringing down the Berlin Wall. His cult music show on the BBC Russian Service supplied the youth of the U.S.S.R. with their main source of alternative rock: Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin—and, of course, President Dmitry Medvedev’s favorite band, Deep Purple. It was the music that defined the young Marat, the music he hummed to himself as he rebelled from the Komsomol, the soundtrack in his head as he made his first few hundred dollars. From those stoned teenage days, Marat knew a part of him would be forever British. Today we reap the financial benefits of Seva’s programs. The BBC is the single greatest advertisement for Britain that we have. People want to make their homes here, want their children to be British, invest in British businesses, allow us to invest in their countries because they feel a bond with Britain—a bond created, in no little way, by the BBC Foreign Language Services. The influence and profit generated by this bond are immeasurable. The British are often nonplused by foreigners’ adoration of this rainy island. The BBC made Britain fashionable to the world.

Now that “London time” has been silenced, it is the audience who will suffer least. They can tune in to a host of new radio shows and other media developed by the dictatorships. And though Congress is threatening budget cuts, there’s still the American Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty—in lieu of London, one can keep “Washington time.” No, the loss of the World Service is all Britain’s. In the place on the dial where my grandfather used to hear the words “The time in London is … ” there is only a hoarse hiss and crackle. We are losing our voice. Are we to become history’s mutes?

Pomerantsev is a television producer and nonfiction writer. He lives in London.

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