Mary Dejevsky: Britain needs a sharper TV face abroad

Click to follow
The Independent Online

As the furore about cuts to the BBC goes on, I'm on the side of those demanding something more radical. So far as I – an ex-BBC employee – am concerned, the Corporation should slash its top ranks and peripheral services, leaving only the national broadcasting core. All local radio should go to the commercial sector, with the only concessions to regionalism taking the form of opt-outs.

But there is one area where change should be in the opposite direction: the national disgrace that is BBC World. The only reason why there is no outcry about what passes for a global news channel is that you only come across it if you are abroad. Among those who see it regularly on their travels, there is indignation – which I share.

Elementary things go wrong. When I've been in the Far East, for instance, BBC World sometimes seems not to realise that we have already started a new day. Almost everywhere, taped programmes seem to go round and round. There's a lack of up-to-date news, and an almost perverse disregard of anything to do with Britain. Promotional breaks – for programmes you will not be around to see – are interminable. There seems to be no consensus on presentational style; continuity is sloppy. Many British expatriates are as dissatisfied as we travelling critics.

But we are all labouring under an illusion. We assume that BBC World is the television version of the renowned BBC World Service (radio), and judge it accordingly. But it's not; it's a commercial channel that comes under the umbrella of BBC Worldwide, while being able to call on BBC resources. Some of us also assume that we travellers and ex-pats are the targeted viewers. Wrong again. As was painstakingly explained to me by BBC World's head of news, Richard Porter, the people BBC World wants to reach are the mainstream viewers in countries such as the US and the Indian Subcontinent. And more and more of them are tuning in – so that's all right, then. Bigger audiences mean higher advertising income, which means mission accomplished. BBC World can grow and grow.

But it's not all right, is it? This country is represented abroad by a 24-hour TV channel that isn't really the BBC. It trades on the name and the authority it confers, and it uses BBC correspondents around the globe. But it's a commercial spin-off, with quality that lags far behind the real thing.

As it makes more money, it could be argued, it will improve. And that's one way of looking at it. Another would be to argue that, at a time when many other countries appreciate the value of projecting their view of the world to a wider audience, Britain has to do the same. France, Germany, China, Russia and the Gulf States that fund Al Jazeera are just some of those that now boast highly professional world TV channels.

In the television age, it's no good for the BBC to rest on the laurels of World Service radio. It's equally hard to understand why the Foreign Office, which funds World Service radio via a grant-in-aid and recently had the BBC add Farsi TV for Iran, thinks that everyone else should make do with the travesty that is BBC World. Britain should have either a proper World Service TV channel, to be the face and voice of Britain abroad, or none. The hybrid BBC World should be stripped of its faux BBC brand and sent out into cold hard commercial reality.

The just-departed director of the BBC's Global News division, Richard Sambrook, told me that Parliament would not fund a World Service TV channel and that a commercial station was better than none. I don't agree – and neither should the Government. If the BBC made the sort of cuts to the domestic services that it could, there would be funds enough to produce a BBC World we would be proud of.

Don't rush to judge that criminality is all in the genes

Why, i wonder, such Schadenfreude at the recall to custody of Jon Venables, one of the two boys who murdered James Bulger 17 years ago? The passions of James's parents are understandable; they never disguised their anger at the attention lavished, as they saw it, on the two child-killers and the anonymity granted to them on their release in 2001. For them, Jon's imprisonment represents overdue comeuppance.

In the popular mood, though, I sense something else, over and above visceral horror at the nature of the crime and the way Jon and his fellow-killer, Robert Thompson, came to personify the social ills of an age. What I sense is vindication, a feeling on the part of many people that their gut instincts were right; that criminals are born and not made; that there is such a thing as evil and evil will out, however elaborate the measures taken to contain it.

The Government's apparent belief that potential trouble-makers can be identified very early – and corrective action taken – seems almost to encourage the view that serious criminality resides in the genes. But the idea that your biological heritage is your fate represents a slippery slope. Genetic determinism, however seductive, needs to be recognised for what it is.

As I write, ministers are still declining to reveal what led to Venables' recall. If he committed a serious crime, that is one thing; if the violation is of a different nature, other considerations come into play. Without knowing what the Parole Board knows, we are in no position to pass judgement.

Let's find all those unregistered voters

One of the most admirable, and undersung, aspects of the US civil rights movement was the mobilisation of college students to register black voters in the then segregated South. Bill and Hillary Clinton were among the many, many young Americans who cut their political teeth this way. Could we not encourage a similar drive to register voters in time if not for this, then at least for the next, general election?

The Electoral Commission has found that as many as 3.5 million Britons might not be registered, including more than 50 per cent of under-25s and one in three of those from ethnic minorities. Apathy or even contempt for politics may be one explanation, but ignorance and inefficiency surely play a part.

The Government has tried to raise our lacklustre participation rates by extending the right to a postal vote – which was exactly the wrong thing to do. Electoral fraud was made easier, as was household or community block-voting. The value of a vote was downgraded.

Keeping the electoral register accurate and up to date is something that any democratic government should see as a prime duty. If today's local councils can't muster the necessary enthusiasm, then perhaps we should volunteer, US civil rights-style, to do it for them.