Look what happened in Asia: The BBC's World Service Television is a sure winner, but it needs better backing if it is to keep its audiences, says Jonathan Eyal

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The Independent Online
During a conference in London devoted to outlining a vision for his multi-media empire last September, Rupert Murdoch, once described as the world's 'unofficial minister of information', rejected any suggestion that people such as him would dominate the globe. On the contrary, Murdoch claimed, the advent of satellite television 'has been a key factor in the enormous spread of freedom'.

Fine words, but only six months later the man who revels in his reputation as the Establishment's scourge has dropped the BBC World Service Television (WSTV) programmes from his Star TV satellite's transmissions to China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. Challenging Asian potentates on their home turf is clearly a task that Murdoch relegated to the distant future.

Last week's decision to cease these WSTV transmissions is the result of a settlement between Star TV and the BBC which makes commercial sense for the media mogul. The Star satellite's broad Asian coverage is not attractive to local advertisers. Replacing the BBC with a film channel aimed at Taiwan, as well as buying into Zee TV, a successful Indian station, represents a trend towards the segmentation of the market which the Murdoch company needs.

It nevertheless remains true that the episode has far-reaching political implications. For three years, the BBC has tried to build up its overseas television services. It has yet to achieve world coverage, but WSTV has already managed to rattle Asia's leaders. Star TV's decision to drop the transmissions from London is both an indication of the BBC's effectiveness and a warning of how limited the organisation is likely to remain without judicious backing from the British government.

In February, Murdoch visited both China and India, and found himself receiving persistent complaints about the BBC. The station is 'obviously not very good', blathered a bureaucrat from China's surreally named Ministry of Radio, Film and Television; New Delhi's image is 'often tarnished by bias in the foreign media', moaned an Indian official. He promised to 'make peace' with the doddery men in Peking and in India, and touchingly donated dollars 10,000 to the prime minister's Relief Fund. Faced with the option of confronting governments which are in a position to foil his expansion plans, Murdoch was conciliatory.

In the next fortnight, the biggest remaining British colony will be inaccessible to BBC television. Symbolism in itself means little: Hong Kong's mint has already substituted a flower for the Queen's head on the local coinage. Yet the disappearance of WSTV is an indication to those who run China's 'people's democracy' that they do not have to wait for 1997 in order to win their dispute with the British over human rights: Governor Chris Patten may draft constitutional proposals, while Peking deals with the people who really matter.

WSTV broadcasts a mixture of rolling news bulletins as well as analysis. It is entirely self-funded by BBC Enterprises, the company's commercial arm. Begun in 1991, when requests for 'seed funding' from the Government were rejected, it probably remains a marginal loser of cash, despite a doubling in revenues. But it is a sure winner around the world. WSTV overtook CNN in India almost instantly, and has made deep inroads elsewhere.

Faced with the choice of being kicked out from most of Asia (something that Murdoch was contractually able to do at the end of this year), the BBC settled for damage limitation: holding to the vast Indian market where Murdoch would continue to carry WSTV, and husbanding resources in order to launch an Arabic language service in the Middle East, as well as returning to South-east Asia at a later date.

The BBC knows it has no option but to expand overseas if it is not to be relegated to the status of an offshore European network. It has unrivalled international experience in broadcasting to the world through radio. Far from becoming redundant, radio transmissions are still attracting a weekly audience of more than 130 million, excluding China which pays the BBC the ultimate compliment by trying to jam its transmissions.

The 39 languages in which Bush House in London addresses the globe are thriving. The end of Communism has brought a doubling in audience figures in Romania, for instance, as well as the successful launch of a Ukrainian language service. A deft rescheduling of transmission times and hundreds of rebroadcasting agreements with local stations have penetrated audiences even further. And the reward? A cut of pounds 5m in the Government's grant- in-aid, with the promise of further cuts to come. It is a response that foreigners find astounding.

The success of WSTV is ultimately due to an international vocation which still permeates the British serious media as a whole, founded on the belief that to employ foreign correspondents, rather than relying on agency reports, is a necessity. This is quite unusual in its almost instinctive assumption that foreign news matters.

It is noticeable, for instance, that CNN, which has done so much to define the concept of world-wide news, is only now struggling to become truly international and usually in response to the BBC. CNN remains good at live coverage of momentous events. Yet despite all its efforts, it is still considered less good than the BBC at interpreting their significance.

The distinction between CNN's 'reportage' and the BBC's 'journalism' is infuriating for the bosses of the Atlanta-based network. Yet it remains partially valid: following on television screens an unfolding revolution in Moscow last October was exhilarating. But for many hours the only commentary that CNN provided was a reminder to its viewers that they were watching columns of tanks, coupled with the reassurance that everyone in the American embassy remained unharmed. The BBC has no resources to offer such live coverage. But it did provide a good running commentary on Yeltsin's choices after the destruction of the Russian parliament, and live interviews with some of the participants in the drama. And it ran the story for much longer, especially in the lead- up to Russia's elections.

The approaches of the BBC and CNN are not necessarily contradictory. Indeed, both may be required for a true understanding of world events. But tacit admission of the BBC's potential comes in various ways: in CNN's recruitment of British correspondents and the visceral hatred of dictators around the world, often directed against the London-based organisations in particular.

Asian potentates claim to object to Western television's corrupting influence. Nonsense: Malaysia, which claims to defend its people from 'cultural pollution' also feeds its population on teenage soaps such as Beverly Hills 90210. Throughout Asia, national stations produce a similar diet of rubbish, with local names such as Man in the Net or the Angel of Vengeance. Far from protecting their cultures, most Asian leaders are interested in protecting their power. Their views are shared elsewhere: all of the post- Communist European states have relaxed control over radio, but in only a few is television outside government control. Possession of television transmitters is often the first priority in any power struggle.

WSTV's English language transmissions can obviously reach only a narrow group of people in authoritarian states. But most of the BBC's external services staff are trained to work in both radio and television, and the introduction of an Arabic language service to the Middle East is a sure winner. Transmission compression techniques are bound to allow almost instant dubbing in any language, and the introduction of vernacular services around the world is only a question of

resources.

Yet granting these resources is not a task that inspires British politicians, for a simple reason: it does not win votes. The Government may have been right in waiting to see whether WSTV could be a viable proposition. As the latest episode in Asia indicates, operating on a shoestring has its limitations: in many regions which remain crucial to British interests, and especially in Eastern Europe and Russia, WSTV would be able to penetrate only with some government support.

Next time British politicians make ringing promises about combating dictatorial tendencies around the world, they should be reminded of the Corporation's

efforts. Alternatively, we could

all wait for the traditional BBC- bashing at the annual Conservative Party conference. Or another speech about personal freedoms from Murdoch.

(Photograph omitted)

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