Ian Burrell: The world's most isolated people could do with London calling

Media Studies: Kim Jong-un presides over a state where accessing foreign news is a criminal offence

After more than a month with Britain in the grip of a global media frenzy that has helped to bring the nations of the world closer together it is easy to forget that there are still countries where people are in the dark about what's going on outside their own borders.

Some North Koreans may have learned from selected items released by the state-run Korean Central News Agency that their weightlifters won three gold medals at London 2012 or even that swimmer Rim Ju Song became the country's first competitor at a Paralympics. But facts are scarce. Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un presides over a state with the least free media in the world and where accessing the output of foreign news organisations remains a criminal offence.

At the BBC World Service, recently relocated to new offices in the refurbished Broadcasting House, there is a growing feeling in the corridors that something needs to be done about this. The world's largest international broadcaster transmits to 188 million people in 27 languages – but Korean isn't one of them.

One of the arguments against broadcasting is that it puts listeners at risk of arrest – or even of being sent to the camps in which more than 150,000 political prisoners are believed to be held.

But there is growing evidence that, in spite of the restrictions and state attempts at jamming signals, North Koreans are accessing snippets of the foreign news services they crave. In May, a report funded by the Washington-based consulting group InterMedia found that "substantial numbers" of North Koreans now have access to foreign media that challenges the propaganda narratives of the state news organisations. Some studies of North Korean travellers and refugees have suggested almost half had access to foreign media inside the country.

Members of the social elite and those living close to borders are most likely to be able to access foreign television and radio from South Korea or obtain DVDs smuggled from China. Among the broadcasters based in South Korea is the US government-run Voice of America, and Radio Free Asia, which is funded by grants from Washington and transmits to North Korea for five hours a day from a studio in Seoul.

In Westminster there are those who think it is time that the World Service, which was launched in 1932 but has never broadcast into Korea, provided a service for the most isolated people on the planet.

Lord Alton, who leads the All-Party Parliamentary Committee on North Korea, says that in the past decade there has been a surge in recognition of the value of English, which is now the Democratic Republic's designated second language. Pyongyang has seen the growth of Beijing, to which it was a comparable city only 40 years ago. The Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, of which Lord Alton is a trustee, is the country's first privately funded university and employs British staff on its faculty as well as having English as its teaching language.

"We (Britain) are in a very interesting position to assist with change and reform," says the peer. "It's English English they want and not American English."

For obvious historical reasons, the United States is still viewed with distrust in North Korea and the BBC, with its unrivalled international reputation for impartiality, has a great opportunity here.

There are historical parallels. During the Cold War, the World Service was highly effective in broadcasting services into parts of the Soviet Union. The much-loved Hungarian, Bulgarian and Polish services were shut down in 2005 because they were seen to have done their job and were no longer required in nations that had established free news media of their own.

The steady closing down of services in recent times – the Serbian, Turkish, Chinese Mandarin and Macedonian were among the networks to close last year – has created the impression of a broadcasting institution that is declining in influence.

A more proactive stance has been taken with another of those countries dubiously dubbed the "Axis of Evil" by George W Bush, Iran, where the BBC launched a Persian Television Service in 2008. Inside the BBC, North Korea is grouped with Somalia, Afghanistan and Burma as audiences it would like to reach – and all those countries are served by the World Service. But since 2008 the financial picture at the BBC has changed inordinately.

Funding of the World Service has been switched from the Foreign Office to the cash-strapped BBC. The Government's spending review of 2010 led to a 16% cut in the World Service budget which was only partially offset by Foreign Secretary William Hague's U-turn decision to give an extra £2.2m a year for three years when he acknowledged "the world has changed". His comments referred to political developments in the Arab world – but North Korea is also a deserving case.

"We don't want another bloodbath," says Lord Alton, referring to the Korean War in which one million died, including 1,000 British service personnel (more than the combined casualties in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Falklands). The situation remains tense with a wary Chinese government and 30,000 US troops stationed in South Korea.

The BBC told me it had "no plans at present" to open a Korean service and claimed "it is not clear that we would be able to reach anything more than a tiny proportion of the population". But it did say that it was "open to the possibility of broadcasting World Service to new audiences".

There is an argument to be made for a Seoul-based service – given the strong British business interests in that part of the peninsula and the fact that the London suburb of New Malden is home to the largest Korean expat community in Europe. But the media-savvy South Koreans have a different relationship to radio and it is the North Koreans who really need to hear London calling. Lord Alton, who has already held talks with BBC executives, will resume those discussions after the House of Lords summer recess.

Within the ranks at the World Service, North Korea is seen as something of a test case for the BBC as it takes on responsibility for funding this cherished international operation. Let us hope that this great British institution has a vital future responding to the changing needs of people around the world. It can't be left to wither on the vine.

An old-school approach to cultural challenges

A warm welcome to Maria Miller, the new Culture Secretary, who I met for the first time on Friday as she made her debut appearance in the job. Ms Miller was unveiled at Wayra, a trendy London incubator for tech and digital start-ups, so she could talk about the need for a rollout of superfast broadband.

As she chatted to digital entrepreneurs, she walked past an office table tennis table, which prompted some of those present to recall the back and forth email exchanges of her predecessor Jeremy Hunt and News International lobbyist Fred Michel about the future of BSkyB.

Ms Miller emphasised she would be different from Mr Hunt and that her background as an executive at Grey, the advertising and marketing agency, would help her to make the creative industries a key part of all Government economic policy.

She then approached the office punchbag and perched on a stool at the office breakfast bar, where she denied suggestions that she had a problem with gay rights.

That, she said, was something which pressure groups needed to discuss with her face-to-face and "not on Twitter".

How very old school.

Digital divisions don't matter now

Are the divisions between so called "traditional media" and digital even relevant any more? Jerry Wright, the chief executive of the Audit Bureau of Circulation, thinks the term is out of date.

That's not surprising when the latest ABC figures show "print" monthlies Cosmopolitan and Men's Health now selling 13,298 and 12,142 copies respectively in digital formats. Tech magazine How it Works now sells more than 25 per cent of its circulation as digital copies. Total Film, Wired and Health & Fitness all have more than 10 per cent of sales in digital. Future Magazines title T3, another gadget specialist, now sells only in digital format (registering 17,682 copies in its first six-monthly ABC).

Meanwhile, the much-derided regional press is starting to post sizeable electronic circulation figures. Trinity Mirror's Manchester Evening News has 1,796,917 monthly and 99,042 daily users of its website, compared with a 78,984 daily circulation of the paper. Newsquest titles, the Southern Daily Echo, Lancashire Telegraph and Brighton Argus, all have more online daily browsers than paper sales, as does Johnston Press title the Yorkshire Evening Post.

"People talk about the demise of the regional press but we have figures for 800 titles, which is a pretty healthy number," says Wright. "And if you look at the reach of their brands through digital they're going pretty well."

Twitter: @iburrell

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