THE CRITICS : A service so good they want to get rid of it

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Indy Lifestyle Online
On Wednesday the Foreign Affairs select committee was warned that the BBC's World Service would have to cease broadcasting in some languages if planned Government funding cuts go ahead (see feature, Review, page 16). Last November, when this column deplored such cuts, a larger number of readers than ever before wrote, offering their support. In fact, of all the broadcast output of this country, the World Service is the only network that I have never seen adversely criticised. There are those who can't stand Today, who loathe Sue Lawley, who become apoplectic at the mention of Jimmy Young, but there seems to be nobody who dislikes the World Service. On the contrary, it is universally regarded as our greatest national asset. What does the Foreign Office think it is doing?

Last week I was in Boston listening to its latest venture, which started this month. The World is an hour-long programme broadcast daily from WGBH Boston as a joint venture with Public Radio International, syndicated across the United States. Eight million dollars have been found, from an assortment of funders, to secure its first-year costs: occasional, discreet advertisements suggest that some of this comes from medical-research establishments. It is, as you might have guessed, excellent.

It begins with news, as only the World Service sees it. It was probably the only station on which Americans could learn of a peasants' revolt in Brazil and elections in Zaire, the creation of Serb pages on the Internet and attacks on tourists in Korea. Then off we went to a report on the arrival of Aids in China, another on the development of the Irish film industry and a third on the plight of ill-treated dancing bears in Turkey. Now, closer to home for the Americans, came an excellent item on the Oklahoma bombing. This was the only item that overlapped with television news that day (preoccupied as it was with the Yorks' divorce). Television marked the first anniversary with mawkish and squirmy reports: The World took a steadier view, talking to a woman who had been ill that day, not gone to work and so survived. Her grief at the loss of 16 colleagues had been appalling but she was beginning to make progress and so, little by little, they concluded, the process of re-building shattered lives creeps forward.

The greatest thing about this kind of programme is the sense it gives of common humanity. Insularity has no place on it. It speaks of fellow human beings suffering and rejoicing, working and weeping in every corner of the globe. It is intensely stimulating.

Another example of compassionate humanity came with Mineclearers (R4). Brian Barron was in Cambodia with a group of ex-soldiers who are taking trowels and secateurs to tackle, with infinite patience, the enormous task of discovering and detonating land-mines, under the aegis of the charity Halo. They are an impressive bunch. There is a particular kind of radio silence which suggests that the reporter is terrified. It was tangible between the beeping of a metal-detector and the painstaking removal of the earth around a mine. You felt that Barron himself was pretty brave to be there; braver still, the men who did it; bravest of all the little family setting out to gather firewood beyond the safety line.

Julian Pettifer's Asiafile has got off to a flying start. This week, they tackled the problems of being a beauty queen in the Philippines and of being Chinese virtually anywhere. A Hong Kong businessman compared his city to an ice-cube next to the great oven of China, ready to melt if the heat is turned up. But to be Chinese in Indonesia is worse. Feared and mistrusted, successful immigrant Chinese attempt to become invisible, taking Indonesian names and converting to Islam, but they are still pariahs, in some senses the Jews of Asia.

But not really. They have not endured the Holocaust. Anita Lasker-Wallfisch has, and in 50 Years Later (R3) she deplored the ignorance of people who question her experiences. Now a cellist with the English Chamber Orchestra, she spoke of her sister who had been threatened with prosecution by an ex-Nazi for stating on German television that their parents had been gassed and thus perpetuating the "extermination myth". The question she wants us to ask is not how it felt to be her, not even - heaven help us - whether or not it actually happened, but how otherwise ordinary people could have done what they did to her and her family. Beneath her careful, measured talk, the need for justice burned.

To end less grimly: 50 years ago, as those camps were liberated, Butlins opened a vast holiday camp at Filey, North Yorkshire. Nick Baker, who sounds, worryingly, more like Ray Gosling every day, went there for This Must Be The Place (R4). He uncovered the fearsome tale of Charlie the flatulent elephant who became violent when his keeper died, and he met a complete nutter who has lovingly restored a seat from the old chair- lift that took happy campers down to the beach. This man sits in it, in his garden. As somebody once said, it's a funny old world.