Centre of attention
There is something about the media hyping of the World Service in the wake of Alan Johnston's release that makes me slightly uncomfortable.
We in the World Service, and more precisely World Service News, have been the centre of attention lately. Alan made sure of that. He said "we sustained him". And judging by the clarity of his analysis post-release, he's come out fully briefed on world affairs.
We do news well here at the World Service - those who listen vouch for it and those who don't still think we're "a good thing".
We've finessed impartiality down to a fine art. The Independent's Robert Hanks had a fine turn of phrase last Monday: "For most of its history," he wrote, "the WS has been engaged in a kind of propaganda... the softest form of propaganda imaginable. It boosts Britain by refusing to boost Britain." And that's spot on. We do not boost, we do not label, we do not "belong" and we certainly do not take sides. We pursue "neutrality" with a vengeance. So much so that it's the only thing we're not neutral about - I'm never sure whether our audiences agree though.
We broadcast to 37.6 million people in English alone, across a huge array of economic, ethnic and racial divides, political and religious convictions. We don't take anything for granted, not even that our listeners understand us at face value. It helps to be precise with words and meticulous when it comes to analysis. Our listeners are great texters and e-mailers, whether they catch us on a crackling short wave transmitter or digitally, on the net, on FM partner stations or on 648 kHz here in the UK. They love to engage and give their views. They can be picky, at times pedantic. What unites them all is a passion for, and a curiosity about, the world.
On YouTube recently, the editor of World Have Your Say, our global phone-in programme that featured prominently on Alan's listening schedule, spoke of a typical World Service listeners' on-air exchange: an Indian man, sailing from India to China, listening on his computer, debates with a Somali taxi driver in Moscow the merits of our Gaza coverage. Now how's that for a global audience?
Of course I am proud and honoured that our programmes facilitate the "global conversation", and that they've been such a lifeline to Alan, and before him to Brian Keenan, Terry Waite and John McCarthy, and before them to Mikhail Gorbachev. And of course I am pleased to read in the British press that we are "the best known and most respected voice in British broadcasting". I like to think that our 1.3 million listeners in the UK are not just insomniacs who listen when Radio 4 is off air, but people who make a clear choice to listen to us because they like the way we do news.
But my point here is not to revel in our re-energised media profile. I wonder what the World Service means to British consumers of news beyond a symbolic jewel in the crown. And how many of you reading this blog in the UK take advantage of this resource that is yours, this vibrant, modern, 24/7 news service under your very noses of which someone once said that it "wields more influence than the United Nations"? Just curious....