BBC World Service 80 years old today

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.

© Copyright Nicholas Robert Jewitt and, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nicholas Robert Jewitt and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


About Nick Jewitt

Born Muswell Hill, London, England, 13 June 1954, the last in a spread-out family of five, our one sister being the eldest. Family moved to Cowden, Kent when I was 3 years old, into the house my Dad had been building. He carried on finishing it as I was growing up. We were High Church Anglicans, though Holy Trinity Mark Beech was 'lower' than that which my parents were used to. In 1959 I started at Hever CE Primary school, 60 pupils, leaving in 1965 having "passed" the 11-plus examination (when I was 10). This led to my entry into The Skinners' School (don't forget the apostrophe), a Grammar school for boys in Tunbridge Wells; 'Twigs', the Tunbridge Wells County Girls' School (apostrophe remembered) was just over the road. I never did find the tunnel under the road, being less interested than some, I suppose. During this time I had what is known as "an evangelical conversion", though I called it "becoming a Christian". This awakening of faith had a huge effect for good in my life, though it did nothing to reduce the narrow-mindedness ingested at home, and little to draw me out of my shell in more public situations. Teens were difficult, leading to confusion and uncertainty after two moderate A level passes. I went to an evening Bible College in London and worked for British Rail - Sealink at Victoria station. IRA bomb scares in London were frequent. Later I worked as a full time volunteer in St Mark's Church, Kennington, then ended up in the ubiquitous "P&D" - painting and decorating - from where I branched out into other skills in house renovation, doubtless assisted by what I had picked up from Dad's efforts at home. In 1978 I joined what became Roehampton University, taking a combined degree in Education and Environmental Studies (ES) with the aim of teaching. Teaching Practice (TeePee) in Inner London schools eventually persuaded me that I should give up on that idea so I dropped Education and took up Sociology, finally graduating in 1982 and celebrating with a trip to the Soviet Union – my first time to fly, at the age of 28. In 1982 it was hard enough to get any job, let alone one using my interests and qualifications in ES. I did apply for some jobs in housing management to no avail. Needed money and unwilling to go on the dole, so back to the housing renovation. I believe I imbibed my interest in the less fortunate from my mother, who was a keen supporter of the Mothers' Union work overseas, and collected money from friends and neighbours for Oxfam. I got the call to work in Africa and left in January 1984 for the Anglican Diocese of Karamoja in the wild north-east of Uganda. Administratively, I was a volunteer for a missionary society who asked me if I could supervise and organise the construction of small single storey buildings - houses, offices, clinics, etc. I was reasonably confident I could, so I did. The bishop at the time was an ex-architect so that helped. Aside from that, knowing what you don't know, and knowing where to look were the keys, as well as trying to acquire the necessary management and people skills. Mother died February 1986 at the age of 76. I left Uganda end of same year, did a year's Missionary & Cross-cultural study, and went back to the same job in Uganda in September 1988. Stayed for 3 more years, informally adopted a son, got engaged to be married. 1992, went to Kampala (Uganda's capital) to take up one of two jobs I thought had been offered. Both fell through: there followed the (mostly) dark years, the long night of the soul, which included a marriage begun and ended, the (happy) birth of a daughter, a finding of myself, and, slowly and painfully, the loss of my evangelical faith and acceptance of a different orientation. A new dawn of understanding has contributed to the ongoing process of re-building myself. Meanwhile I dossed around, the odd contract in building- or development-related work, a year and a half as the maintenance officer of the international school. In 1997 I set up a small company – renovation and installation. It helped us survive and eventually covered the cost of a pair of semi-detached houses as settlement for my wife. In 2005 I came back to UK with ten-year-old daughter and have settled in Bangor, on the beautiful north Wales coast, facing Snowdonia. And back to housing renovation for a while, becoming increasingly difficult for my back. In early 2009 I began studying and easing myself into copy-editing and proof-reading. The process continues. Now attending Society of Friends (Quakers), whose meeting for worship is based on silence, with contributions as the Spirit leads. Involved in activism for peace and justice, particularly anti-nuclear; environment too – it occurs to me that I imbibed some of this from my father, a member of the Soil Association from the 1960s, and against inappropriate chemical use. I imbibed his anger too, reduced and hopefully better channelled now.
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2 Responses to BBC World Service 80 years old today

  1. Micheal says:

    UBC, Up to now,is unreliable,you cannot rely on it,it promotes the tyrant Museveni 24/7. Yes am a news man too.

  2. Nick Jewitt says:

    I suspect it was after this you added me on Facebook, but now I don’t see you. I liked your writing linked to by your name above, by the way.

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