The world needs Britain to stay on the air

133 million listeners tune in to BBC broadcasts. Yet once again cuts are proposed, laments Andrew Marshall; The BBC World Service is the last truly global British institution
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One of the most memorable speeches of this year was Michael Portillo's brazen attempt to annexe the Special Air Service to the cause of anti- Europeanism at the Conservative Party conference. His performance was crapulous braggadocio, the worst example of the ignorant breast-beating which increasingly typifies Britain's attitude to the rest of the world.

Despite the posturings of the Secretary of State for Defence, if there is a British organisation with a three-letter name which is known and respected around the world, it is the BBC. That is principally because of World Service radio, broadcasting in English and 40 other languages to 133 million listeners.

But while Mr Portillo was at pains to defend spending on the armed forces, the World Service is targeted for heavy cuts, which would reduce its ability to operate as the last truly global British institution.

The World Service is a marvel. Talk to any English speaker who has spent time abroad and they will pay tribute to its virtues, as have hostages freed from Lebanon and those English speakers like Aung San Suu Kyi who have had only a radio for comfort during long years of imprisonment.

Britain does not, however, fund and operate the World Service purely for the benefit of jailed political prisoners, lonely travellers and troubled expats ("please gather on Aden beach at 0500 GMT, where boats will be waiting to evacuate you"). Nor is it correct to assume that the World Service is purely a product of the need for a propaganda vehicle during the Cold War. It is a piece of enlightened self-interest, very much in tune with a world that is increasingly interlinked and which communicates in English.

The World Service sells the idea of Britain abroad. It does this directly - by teaching English and spreading British news and views - but also indirectly, by broadcasting news that is free of political interference, balanced and accurate. It has contributed to the better face of Britain in the world, as a liberal, intelligent and humane nation.

The idea of Britain which the BBC projects is not, as non-listeners might imagine, stuck in the days of Empire. It is true that the strains of Lillibullero, along with a sonorous BBC tone of voice and a seriousness that has long been absent from the Home Service or the Light Programme, still hang on in the World Service. But it also has a range of programmes - scientific, cultural, frivolous, serious and all stops in between - which show the many faces of modern British society.

On the musical front, for instance, as well as the Proms and classical music there are John Peel, Andy Kershaw, Dave Lee Travis and even Bob Holness, the former presenter of Blockbusters. He hosts an eclectic show called Anything Goes that might include the Goon Show or Blur.

The Government wants to lop pounds 5.4m from the World Service's budget of pounds 169m for 1994-95. The cash goes through the Foreign Office, where the Foreign Secretary, Malcolm Rifkind, has told us not to be "sentimental" about the savings. None the less, the cuts have already brought opposition from the usual suspects: BBC chiefs, MPs from both sides of the House and those who love good radio. In the past this coalition has often stopped cuts, or at least mitigated their impact.

Unfortunately, this time it may be different. For it is not just Foreign Office penury or the temptation of an easy penny saved which is at stake.

The World Service is, at its best, an emblem of a country which has been involved and interested in the world, which felt it had something worthwhile and important to say. The Britain of the Nineties is increasingly insular and unconcerned by anything which does not confirm its mediocre prejudices about foreigners.

The Government suggests that commercial finance could fill the gap left by the cuts, allowing private capital to build new transmitters. That is unlikely to keep the World Service on the same wavelength that it has maintained for 63 years, broadcasting without fear or favour to every part of the world. But then, perhaps we don't have anything much to say to the world any more; and perhaps we don't much care whether anyone is listening anyway.