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Last updated: 07 February, 2007 - Published 16:58 GMT
 
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The 1970s
 
Robert Mugabe
Mugabe broadcast an appeal to release ZANU's military leaders
The 1970s began with the BBC’s overseas broadcasts again under review.

A committee under a leading businessman, Sir Val Duncan, had reported the previous summer and recommended that to give the best value for money the BBC should promote Britain’s commercial and cultural interests, rather than appeal to ordinary people.

"There can be no hope of reaching mass audiences effectively from within the resources available," the Duncan Report said.

"Our efforts should be directed towards the influential few."

As a result, the report wanted the BBC to concentrate on broadcasting in English, not local languages, except in Eastern Europe and the Middle East.

The report’s proposals had little practical effect, but the 1970 response from the then BBC Managing Director of External Services Oliver Whitley (whose father JH Whitley was BBC chairman when the Empire Service began) wrote this outline of Bush House’s aims and values:

The main value of the External Services is not that they may help to sell tractors or nuclear reactors, nor even that they so influence people in other countries, nobs or mobs, as to be more amenable to British diplomacy or foreign policy.

Their main value is that because they effectively represent and communicate this British propensity for truthfulness or the adherence to their individual right to the perception of reality, they help to increase the instability of political systems based on the total inversion of morality and reality for ideological purposes.

Reporting liberation

During the nine months of the Bangladesh Liberation War, news in English by reporters such as Mark Tully and analysis by journalists like William Crowley were translated and broadcast by the Bengali service.

Listening to programmes by the BBC became a punishable offence when it was banned by the Pakistani army.

On 3 December 1971 India intervened in the conflict between West Pakistan and the Bengali nationalist guerrillas.

By 16 December the Pakistani army had surrendered to the Indian army in Dhaka.

West Pakistan's defeat led to the creation of Bangladesh as an independent nation.

The coverage of the war made BBC a household name and an object of affection all over Bangladesh.

The credibility of the BBC today owes much to the reporting and analysis in 1971.

There is even a market named after the BBC in the city of Pabna in the north of the country.

People used to gather around a tea shop there to listen to the BBC. A market grew around the tea shop and it simply became known as BBC Baazar.

Another review

Having emerged almost unscathed from the Duncan Report, the External Services faced another review in 1977, this time from Downing Street think tank the Central Policy Review Staff.

This recommended that the BBC should concentrate on the parts of the world where freedom of information was restricted, and should cut back in other areas. Those proposed cuts went deep.

The report wanted the External Services to stop broadcasting between 8pm and 4am each day and to end services to North America, Australia and New Zealand.

All broadcasting to Europe would stop, except to the Communist bloc; Japanese, Burmese and Somali broadcasts would end; and services halved in Arabic, and in Spanish to Latin America.

The cuts would have amounted to 40 per cent of broadcast output and the BBC strongly resisted them. Its chairman Sir Michael Swann called a news conference at Broadcasting House, which attracted more than 100 journalists from overseas.

The opposition within Britain to the cuts was so strong that the Labour government under James Callaghan backed down, although it did agree to one set of proposals that had BBC support: recommendations for more spending on new equipment.

Ups and downs

Radio listening was going up in the 1970s and so were the audiences for the BBC. By the end of the decade, there were almost 1,500 million radio sets in the world - about half as many again as there were in 1972.

That year the Corporation was transmitting more than 750 hours of programming a week in 40 languages - its biggest output since the Second World War and 200 hours more than during its low point in the middle of the 1950s.

But then came the oil crisis, sparked by the Arab-Israeli war of 1973, which caused an economic downturn.

Government spending was slashed and each year the BBC had to make savings. By 1980, that 750 hours a week was down to just over 700.

To cut or not to cut

Deciding which services to cut from the BBC’s wide range of broadcasts is far from easy, and is made harder when international circumstances change.

In 1979 the Turkish Service just managed to survive the axe. Two years later, after a military takeover in Turkey, the service was expanded.

The Persian Service was much criticised by the Shah’s government in 1976 and 1978, causing friction between Teheran and London.

The British Foreign Office might almost have been glad to see it closed to restore good relations, but after the Shah’s overthrow in 1979, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1980, that service, too, was expanded.

Another example was the language services to India which, from the 1950s, were regularly threatened with cuts.

After Mrs Gandhi imposed emergency rule in 1976, their broadcasts received widespread praise, including from the British Prime Minister James Callaghan.

In a speech to the Indian Parliament in 1977, after the emergency was over, Callaghan singled out the BBC’s broadcasts for special mention.

Trouble in Uganda

The BBC rarely backed down in the face of complaints from the British government, but in 1975 there were strong objections to a planned interview about the Ugandan dictator Idi Amin.

President Amin was known to be unpredictable, and three years earlier had expelled around 50,000 Asians living in Uganda, calling them "bloodsuckers."

Now the Foreign Office feared he might target British citizens if a proposed interview with journalist David Martin, about a highly critical book he had written about the president, went ahead.

The BBC agreed to delay the interview, but held an internal review of the decision.

The conclusion was that any immediate risk had passed and three weeks later than scheduled the interview went ahead. There was no reaction inside Uganda.

Trusted in Vietnam

The trust that listeners put in the BBC is shown in an example from the final days of the Vietnam War.

In March 1975, a correspondent of the Guardian newspaper wrote about what he called the "God-like authority of the BBC" on both sides of the conflict.

He said there was a huge exodus of South Vietnamese citizens and soldiers from the country’s Central Highlands after the BBC confirmed rumours that their government was planning to abandon the area.

The Guardian correspondent wrote: "The authority of the BBC Vietnamese language service is difficult to comprehend for those who have never visited Vietnam, but for a variety of reasons it is trusted by the Vietnamese, who are not a trustful people, like no other news source."

From Bush House to bush war

The failure of the British government to reach a settlement with the white regime in Rhodesia was followed by an escalating guerrilla war in the country.

The fighters of ZANU and ZAPU based themselves in the bush of Mozambique and Zambia, launching cross-border raids on the Rhodesian army.

Because of censorship, the African Service’s Focus on Africa gave them an opportunity to get an objective account of their efforts.

Not only that, according to a former editor of Focus on Africa Robin White, "they could also listen to their leaders boasting of successes and plotting against each other. Zanu and Zapu claimed to be fighting the same enemy but everyone knew that the show of unity was just that - a show."

The internal divisions became so bad, particularly after the assassination of Zanu’s leader Herbert Chitepo in 1975, that the Zambian president, Kenneth Kaunda, jailed several of the organisation’s military leaders.

In response Robert Mugabe visited Bush House and made a powerful appeal to Kaunda to release them, which he did.

Those military leaders left for Mozambique, overthrew Chitepo’s successor, the Rev. Ndabaninge Sithole, and made Mugabe their leader.

As Robin White recalls: "Mugabe has reasons to be thankful to the BBC, but he does not show much gratitude today." The BBC is currently banned from Zimbabwe.

The case of the poisoned umbrella

The murder of a Bulgarian Service journalist Georgi Markov in 1978 sounded like a cross between an Agatha Christie detective story and a John le Carré spy novel.

Markov was killed at a bus stop in the middle of London, almost certainly because he was a strong critic of the Communist regime in his homeland.

The murder weapon was intriguing. It is believed to have been a poisoned umbrella.

Markov’s broadcasts for Radio Free Europe included a series of satirical programmes called Personal Meetings with Todor Zhivkov.

Zhivkov was the Bulgarian leader and not a man to upset. In 1977, he signed an order that allowed "all measures" to be used "to neutralize enemy émigrés."

The fatal attack was carried out on 7 September, 1978 - Zhivkov’s birthday.

That day, Markov was coming to work at Bush House and heading for a bus stop on the south side of Waterloo Bridge over the River Thames.

It was lunchtime and the pavement was crowded. He said later that he suddenly felt a pain in his right thigh and when he turned round, saw a man picking up an umbrella.

The man apologized in a foreign accent and quickly got into a taxi. Markov went to work at Bush House, but later became very ill and the next day went to hospital.

Doctors found he had a small puncture wound in his thigh and diagnosed blood poisoning. Three days after the stabbing, he died.

Dissident to president

The problems of reporting from behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War are illustrated by the treatment of Vaclav Havel, the Czech playwright who became his country’s president after Soviet rule.

He was one of more than 200 Czechoslovakian dissidents who, in 1977, signed a manifesto on human rights called Charter 77.

The authorities tried to silence him by banning him from living in the capital Prague or even having a telephone line.

He was also watched by the secret police. But the Czech Service still managed to get round the restrictions.

They would ring his local post office with a message to go there later for an interview. It worked.

Unfortunately for Havel, one of his interviews was transcribed by the secret police and used in a court case against him, in which he was accused of "blackening the good name of the Czechoslovak Republic."

After the Soviet-backed government was deposed in the “Velvet Revolution” of 1989, Havel became president of Czechoslovakia (and later the Czech Republic) and a strong supporter of the World Service.

Fall of the Shah

The Shah of Iran had a long-running battle with the BBC before he was deposed in 1979.

He blamed the Corporation for engineering the downfall of his father in 1941 and for criticising him, but his real problems began in 1978, when he managed to get the religious leader Ayatollah Khomeini expelled from neighboring Iraq for preaching hostile sermons.

While in Iraq, the Ayatollah had received little publicity, but once in Paris, the media had all the access they wanted.

The Shah’s regime blamed the BBC Persian Service for encouraging unrest in Iran and accused it of acting as the Ayatollah’s spokesman - even though he was interviewed only once in Paris, compared with three interviews in a month with the Shah’s Prime Minister, Dr Shapour Bakhtiar.

Overseas journalists, politicians and businessmen in Iran were handed what were said to be transcripts of critical BBC “broadcasts” - though an investigation showed they had never been transmitted.

There were even said to be Iranian plans to sabotage the BBC’s transmitters in Cyprus and Masirah.

But after the Shah was deposed, the BBC proved no more popular with the new government.

When the Persian Service reported protests at the large number of post-revolution executions being carried out, Teheran radio was just as critical as the Shah’s government had been, accusing the BBC of being “a mouthpiece of world-guzzling capitalism, which seems to dream of that empire on which the sun never set.”

 
 
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