I have watched an African capital city, riven and traumatised by a brutal civil war, come to a standstill twice a day so that its citizens, civilians and combatants alike, can listen to the broadcasts of the African Service on the BBC.
Walk down Shaka Stevens Street in downtown Freetown, Sierra Leone, and the pavements, shop fronts and door steps would be crowded with little groups of people, huddled round a shortwave radio, hungry for reliable news.
A veteran of the Zimbabwe liberation war once told me that during the struggle to overthrow white minority rule, “We hated you guys. You were the British, the enemy. We listened to our own radio stations in the bush. But when we really needed to know what was happening, we - secretly - listened to you.”
And so the anecdotes accumulate. When I started as a BBC foreign correspondent, the World Service was also a lifeline. In the Jordanian capital Amman, in 1991, as we waited for the first Gulf War to start, I walked up the corridor of the journalists’ hotel. I had just filed a despatch for what we then called the Bush House “reel” - a bulletin at the top of the hour.
Disconcertingly, I heard the familiar strains of Lillibullero (the World Service signature tune) coming from every room. Every journalist in the building would hear - and scrutinise - every line of my report, within minutes of my having filed it. The peer pressure was immense. That wasn’t true of any other member of the hack pack, apart from the revered men and women of the wire services.
The BBC World Service’s reputation for impartiality has held up for 80 years. The firewall the BBC Charter puts between its editors and correspondents and the government of the day has preserved its independence. There have always been governments who hate the World Service and try to jam it or block it. That is part of what makes it so valued by those who - sometimes at great risk - listen.
The World Service newsroom is a strange and exotic place. It is where the BBC’s commitment to impartiality is most jealously guarded and cherished. It is where the BBC’s core values truly reside. The men and women who work there have always felt a little marginalised, a little over- looked, by the wider organisation. But they are the guardians of what the BBC is truly about.
In the staff canteen across London at Television Centre you might share a table with Ricky Gervais or Miranda Hart. At Bush House you’ll be sharing your lunch with a colleague who has been in jail in their own country and is still receiving threats and intimidation from a regime hostile to independent journalism.
The World Service will lose its direct grant from the Foreign Office in 2014 and be funded for the first time by the British television licence fee. This year - the 80th since broadcasts began - the World Service will leave Bush House and join their news colleagues in an impressive new newsroom at Broadcasting House near Oxford Circus in central London. The Swahili Service, and the Persians, the Hausa and the Tamils, will sit under the same awesome glass atrium as the Today programme and the BBC News at Ten.
Having all that talent working together will see the start of a new era for journalists at the BBC. It’s an exciting time, but I hope that some things won’t change and the face that the World Service projects in the world – and the lifeline it extends to hundreds of millions - will remain as valuable as it has always been.
Allan Little is BBC World Affairs correspondent. This is an edited version of an article in the issue of Radio Times magazine published 6 February 2012.
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