Michael Church: The needless destruction of a cultural treasure

The planned cuts to the BBC World Service will be dressed up as 'streamlining'
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The Independent Online

One night last week I attended a charming little event at the Foundling Museum in Bloomsbury, where the London Handel Players played and talked about their music. The job of the audience, laced with glasses of wine, was to create an intimately convivial effect. Staged by the BBC World Service, the concert would be relayed to Mali and Malaysia, Bangladesh and Brazil, as one of the Service's regular recreations of the domestic Schubertiads with which that composer entertained his friends. The series is both popular and very cheap to make: any day now, the BBC will shamefacedly announce its demise, along with the demise of many other equally popular - and equally cheap - programmes beamed to its listeners overseas.

Out will go Everywoman (the World Service's answer to Woman's Hour), the drama serial Westway, and the book readings in Off the Shelf. Of the five pop music programmes currently on air, just one will remain, while both the weekly classical music shows will be dropped; from now on, classical music's appearance in the schedules will be spasmodic and occasional. And what will we get instead? I say "we", as there are currently more than a million people in Britain now listening to the World Service in addition to the 40 million English-speaking listeners worldwide. Surprise, surprise, what we'll get is more news: 22 hours of it every weekday, to be precise. From next April, when the new schedules take effect, the BBC World Service will cease to be a benign and balanced force in radio broadcasting, and will merely function as a "news and information" service.

These cultural amputations are just the latest stage in a long process of attrition. Five years ago, 35 per cent of the programming was non-news: there were no less than eight regular weekly classical music programmes; the literary and dramatic output was on a similar scale. The service also used to focus regularly on particular countries or regions, scrutinising everything from politics and economics to culture, clothing, and food, but that too is now a thing of the past. Meanwhile some even more remarkable cuts are in prospect: the 43 languages in which the BBC speaks to the world are to be whittled down to about 30.

What on earth is going on? The answer is politics: egged on by the Foreign Office, the newsmen who now control every part of BBC World Service are planning to launch a 24-hour television news service in Arabic. And since the Government won't cough up the necessary £25m to launch it, the World Service hopes to find the money through cuts elsewhere. Nobody could dispute the political usefulness of a BBC-run Arabic service, but this was tried in the mid-90s, with disastrous results: the BBC's collaboration with Saudi broadcasters, in the form of an Arabic Television Service, lasted just two years.

But the most ironical thing is that the planned cuts - which will doubtless be dressed up as "streamlining" and "reconfiguring" - probably won't liberate the requisite cash, because the axed activities are all done on a shoestring. And something irreplaceable will be lost. As a periodic contributor of reports from remote places over the past 15 years, I've come to regard the ethos of this service with great respect. The first lesson I learned from it, after being schooled in the art of clear diction, was that you never, ever describe a cultural manifestation as "strange": a small prohibition, but implying something important about your attitude. World Service cultural programming patronises neither its subject-matter nor its audience: it has none of the complacent, in-group knowingness which mars some of its domestic equivalents. In some odd way, it's remained uncorrupted. And it has cast its net wider - often garnering better stories as a result - than the home channels do.

As I write these words, the BBC's plans are still being hammered out, and common sense may still prevail. For common sense is what it boils down to. International broadcasting is a diplomatic weapon for winning hearts and minds, and nothing wins them more directly than the universal language of music. Reducing the World Service's pop coverage is simply daft, given its instant connection with young people everywhere. And at a time when classical music is becoming ever more popular outside its original geographical confines - consider the success of Daniel Barenboim's East-West Divan Orchestra - eliminating classical coverage seems perverse in the extreme. By focusing monomaniacally on one single political notion, the BBC World Service has lost sight of its larger mission. How ironic this should happen at a time when the licence fee is going to be dramatically augmented.