Blogging from the Highlands of Scotland
'From fanaticism to barbarism is only one step' - Diderot

Friday, 6 July 2007

London Calling: Inside the BBC World Service

There is an excellent series of three programmes being broadcast on BBC4 television channel at present about the BBC World Service radio network (the second programme last night focussed on the Arabic service which is, apart from the main English service, the one I am most familiar with).

Most British people resident in the UK are probably hardly even aware that the BBC World Service exists, or what it is supposed to be there for, or who pays for it. For people like me who lived abroad for many (20+) years it was a lifeline back to 'the home country'. For the record it is not paid for out of the general licence fee, but is I believe budgeted for out of a grant from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office - so we as British taxpayers still pay for it. Whether that is a 'good thing' is in my view a separate question. My own view is that it is a widely-respected broadcaster abroad and acts as a major 'marketing tool' for the UK as a country that believes in fairness and honesty (that's not to say we always achieve these fine goals).

Unlike the BBC's domestic television and radio coverage, particularly in recent years, my impression was and remains that the BBC World Service makes real efforts, usually pretty successful, to remain editorially neutral on events it is reporting on. This is why the BBC World Service is amazingly widely-respected, even if this is not completely universal, for its reporting - even in areas of internecine conflict such as in the Middle East. One of my abiding memories is of returning home for lunch one day when I lived in Jeddah in the mid/late-1970s and walking into the kitchen where my cook was listening to a live report of the signing of the first peace treaty between Egypt and Israel (with Anwar Sadat and Menahim Begin representing their two countries) - he was listening to the Arabic service of the BBC, not to any Arab radio or TV channel (it was also being shown live on Saudi television). I asked him why and he was quite clear about this - he knew that, whatever he might think personally about the signing of a treaty with the 'enemy' (Israel) by the 'traitor' (Egypt), he would hear the facts uncoloured by politics from the BBC.

Whether it is still held in quite the same high regard today is perhaps open to question, possibly affected by the proliferation of international television news services (CNN, BBC, Al-Arabiya, Al-Jazeera, etc). For the BBC (whose international television service is currently almost exclusively in English, but which is in process of setting up a parallel Arabic service to complement the BBC World Service radio broadcasts in Arabic) there is probably some confusion in the minds of listeners and viewers at the slightly different 'flavour' of radio and television broadcasts. Nevertheless I think the BBC World Service remains pretty credible when it comes to reporting straight news.

When I was studying Arabic (late-1980s/ early-1990s), part of our activity was to listen to news bulletins in Arabic of the same events as broadcast from various countries - usually we compared bulletins from the BBC, Amman (Jordan), Koweit and Baghdad (Iraq). In general the only one which compared to the BBC in 'neutrality' was Jordan, hardly itself a neutral bystander in the Middle East conflict, so I thought that was pretty creditable on the part of Radio Amman. Koweit was usually pretty good, too, but did veer toward partisan editorial, specially when discussing neighbour Iraq (just at that time gearing-up, as we later realised, to invading Koweit) and Baghdad made little attempt at editorial neutrality. However, the main purpose for us of listening to these broadcasts was not to hear the news, but to test our ability to comprehend Arabic and to translate it into English competently. For this purpose these four broadcasters were ideal as the BBC deliberately uses newsreaders from different arabic-speaking countries so there is a wide variety of regional accents to listen to and they make a point of using very clear diction, but spoken at normal speed. The Jordanian broadcasts tended to have a mixture of accents from its immediate area (Jordan itself and Palestine) and both Iraq and Koweit tended to have a lot of Iraqi newreaders - even in the latter (i.e. before the August 1990 invasion). The Arabic spoken in Iraq (and Syria) tends to be the 'best' in the Arab world, as the use of good quality language amongst even modestly well-educated Iraqis Syrians is quite widespread; the Arabic spoken by educated Egyptians is said to be (certainly by Egyptians themselves! - lol) excellent, too, but the vernacular in Egypt uses a lot of dialect words unique to that country - although the ubiquity of Arabic movies (certainly in the past) certainly meant that some Egyptian dialect (or slang) was widely-understood in other Arabic-speaking countries, even if they did not use it themselves very much in their daily lives.

I read a lot in various news outlets and blogs about the 'bias' of the BBC; particularly with their television coverage I think they do sometimes get it 'wrong' and seem to be supporting one side or the other - I read in some US media and some American/British blogs about the 'bias' being very-much anti-Israel (and pro-Palestinian), whereas in a few British and some middle eastern media and blogs the charge is that it is pro-Israeli (and anti-Palestinian). I think at least a part of this is the choice of vocabulary to describe an event - my experience is that in radio broadcasts on the BBC World Service they are usually meticulous in choosing 'neutral' and 'non-judgemenal' words to describe what they wish to say; possibly television broadcasts present a different set of problems and priorities because the images complement what the sounds and voices tell the viewer, whereas with radio the listener has only the sound and voices to interpret the message. For example to you describe an arab person firing a rifle as an 'insurgent', a 'freedom fighter' or a 'terrorist'? Or do you describe an member of the Israel Defence Forces as a 'soldier' or as an 'invader', for example when they were conducting operations in Lebanon last summer? However you do it, it is very difficult to use vocabulary that will not offend one side or the other.

The link to the series of programmes will allow you to watch clips of the three programmes, including that to be broadcast next Thursday (12JUL07 21.00-22.00 BST on BBC4, repeated twice later that night). The three programmes cover slightly different aspoects of the BBC World Service's work - the two I have seen so far were excellent; if you are in the UK I strongly suggest you try and watch the final episode next week.

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