The British Broadcasting Service (BBC) World Service is 80 years old today, 29 February 2012. (So 1932 was a leap year.)
We complain, rightly, when the BBC does not give us the full unbiased story on news, local and international, and it seems to happen more often than before. Does this mean its vaunted independence is more compromised than previously? Perhaps it does. But let that not detract from the achievements of the World Service, as illustrated by my own experience.
In January 1984 I went to live and work in Kotido, Karamoja, Uganda. Later, some of my work was in and around Moroto, and I was based there from the end of 1985 until I left the first time in November 1986. I returned there in September 1988 and stayed until September 1991. I was working with the Anglican Church of Uganda as a practical volunteer, organising building programmes for the humanitarian work of Karamoja Diocese.
The BBC World Service was a lifeline to the outside world, particularly during the first tour. We had no phones connecting us to the outside world, only a ‘wind-up’ one in and for Moroto. We received mail every five weeks or so, and of course no internet. We had a radio system which connected the church bases at Kotido, Moroto and Amudat with Kampala and also with some of the Non-Government Organisations in the area, notably the Karamoja Development Programme, funded by the then European Economic Community and run by the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) Department of World Service. Being on the poorer end of things, Karamoja Diocese had no spare radios, so if one went wrong we lost a significant part of communication.
The World Service therefore had a huge value for us at that time. Not yet rebroadcast on FM, we listened on Short Wave which was not always reliable, usually in the evening at 6, 7 or 8 pm for the World News, followed by Focus on Africa with its unforgettable jingle, love it or hate it, which I believe has continued up to today. We kept up with major world events, with news of other African countries and with news of Uganda, for the Ugandan Broadcasting Service (UBC) of the time was unreliable in more than one way, parts of Uganda being in a civil war in the mid-80s following the flawed elections of 1981. Communications were such that at times colleagues from other parts of Uganda relied on the BBC for news of their own country and home area, trusting it more than UBC when the latter was available.
I am one of those who has a thirst for up-to-date news, I want to know what is going on in the world and soonish. Even bad things that we wish did not happen I would rather know than not, such as when Mikhail Gorbachev was put under house-arrest in August 1991 and it appeared for a short time that glasnost would fail. This event also reminded me abruptly of how people from very different backgrounds can view events in different ways. A Ugandan colleague in Kotido, always keen to keep up with world events, was quite blasé about it – regimes come and go, things change, we live with it – whereas my perception was that the huge depressing weight of the threat of nuclear war was once again descending.
The breaching and people-power-dismantling of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 was an occasion of great excitement, hearing it on World Service almost as it was happening. One of my neighbours in Moroto was a German eye nurse who had, not so many months before, told me that German re-unification would be at least 20 years ahead. Unfortunately he was away in Kampala at the time.
The freeing of Nelson Mandela only three months later in February 1990 was another unforgettable occasion brought to us by the World Service. My not-yet-adopted Karamojong son was 13 and when I told him that Madiba was now free, he asked if he was now the president; again a difference in background and life-experience engendered a different perception. Though innocent of such politics the boy had long before lost his innocence of war, experienced at first hand.
Even other expatriates, English-speaking or not told me on a number of occasions that they regarded BBC World Service as more reliable and bias-free than their own national broadcasting services. I wonder if that is the case today. Now in the UK, I do not rely only on BBC TV for news from around the world, I use a number of services for major events, but day-to-day it is BBC radio that keeps me generally aware, though clearly biased at times on certain issues.
Not infrequently do we hear from the people in the trouble-spots of the world, where internet and social media do not yet loom large, that it is the BBC who have kept them factually aware.
So, happy birthday BBC World Service. Long may you continue, with a fresh injection of bias-free reporting. It is very sad indeed that spending cuts may reduce the service to some countries who most need them.
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