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Last updated: 07 February, 2007 - Published 13:51 GMT
 
Email a friend Printable version
The 1990s
 
Burning oil fields in Kuwait
World Service becomes rolling news channel as Gulf war begins
Broadcast technology may have moved a long way in the years since the Empire Service began broadcasting on short wave, but the greater themes of life had changed little.

There were still conflicts, still repressive societies, and listeners - some in captivity, others in secret - still tuned to the impartial reporting of the BBC.

Yet at the beginning of the decade, there were hopes that things were getting better.

The Iron Curtain that Churchill said had descended across Europe after the Second World War was being lifted again.

The Berlin Wall fell in 1989. But by 1991, the Allies were fighting a new war in the Gulf, and the architect of Soviet reforms, Mikhail Gorbachev, was to be captured by hard-liners with only a radio keeping him in touch with events in his country.

Saddam invades Kuwait

As Soviet regimes crumbled at the start of the 1990s, there was a new area of international tension developing: the Gulf. On 2 August 1990, forces of the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait.

Within hours, the BBC Arabic Service had increased its daily broadcasting from nine hours to 10-and-a-half. They were later extended to 14 hours.

The Iraqis responded by jamming the signals, but by using more transmitters and frequencies, the BBC was able to get its broadcasts through.

After a few weeks, the Iraqis gave up and stopped the jamming completely. World Service transmissions in English were also expanded to 24 hours a day from 8 August - and featured some new innovations.

When the coalition attacks began in January 1991, the service cleared its schedules for the first few hours to become, for the first time, a rolling news and comment channel.

Another first was the use of correspondents’ voices in news bulletins. Until then, the saying had been "if the news is the news, it should come from a news reader."

To stay or not to stay?

Keeping BBC correspondents in Baghdad caused some soul-searching.

There were fears they would be used by Saddam Hussein’s propaganda machine, and that, while they could report on the effect of Coalition attacks on Iraqis, there were no correspondents in Kuwait reporting on how the Iraqi invasion was affecting Kuwaitis.

The BBC Governors weighed up the arguments and decided BBC correspondents should stay.

They argued that even if the reporters were pulled out of Baghdad, other news organisations would remain. Unless BBC correspondents were on the spot there was no way of verifying or assessing the significance of what was being reported.

The Governors also argued that a principle was at stake. "In war, as in all its current affairs, the BBC aspires to give the public a full and truthful account of events, placing them as far as possible in their military, political and diplomatic context," they concluded.

Stranded in the Gulf

Tens of thousands of outside workers and their families were trapped in Iraq and Kuwait when Iraqi forces invaded Kuwait in 1990.

To keep their spirits up, the World Service began a daily Gulf Link programme, in which families and friends back home could record messages for them.

The Arabic Service and other language services took up the idea. Among them were the Thai, Bengali and Indonesian services, which were each given an extra frequency so they could be heard in the Gulf.

Around 150,000 Thais were working in Iraq and Kuwait at the time, and some tried to flee to Saudi Arabia.

One group found the going so hard that they were planning to turn back until the BBC reported about Thais who had successfully completed the journey.

Heartened by this, they made good their escape. After the conflict the Thai government recorded its gratitude for the way the BBC had helped its citizens.

The Forces’ friend

As British forces waited to go into action, the Japanese electronics giant Sony donated 100 short wave radios to the 7th Armoured Brigade, the Desert Rats, so troops could listen to the World Service.

The British commander, General Sir Peter de la Billière, said he was "totally reliant" on what he called "a marvellous service".

Even some Americans were listeners. The World Service was regularly broadcast on the aircraft carrier Saratoga stationed in the Red Sea.

A newsreader’s mixed emotions

Among the team reading the news for the Arabic Service on the night the allies began bombing Baghdad, 16-17 January 1991, was an Iraqi woman, whose mother and sister still lived in the city.

Sam Younger, who was head of the Arabic Service at the time - and later became managing director of the World Service - sympathised with her: "Imagine how someone like that felt when news came in that allied planes were bombing Baghdad. But she had to steady her nerves and read the news bulletin in a straight and unemotional way."

Lebanon hostages listen in

Academic Brian Keenan and television journalist John McCarthy were captured by the militant Islamic Jihad group Islamic Dawn in April 1986.

In an effort to negotiate a release of hostages, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s envoy, Terry Waite, went to Beirut. In February 1987, he too was taken.

"I was in solitary confinement and I used to communicate with hostages in the cell next door by tapping on the wall in code," Waite recalled.

"They had a radio and for about nine months I depended on the news being tapped through the wall. In the last six months my captors relented and I was given a small radio.

"I listened to the BBC World Service constantly and I was enormously grateful, particularly for the fact that at the time they were broadcasting virtually 24 hours-a-day to the Middle East. I heard my cousin John broadcasting on Outlook and that meant a great deal to me because John, in a subtle way, got me news from my family."

"The BBC is best"

"The BBC sounded the best" was how the former Russian president Mikhail Gorbachev described his radio listening during the August 1991 coup.

Mr Gorbachev was held for three days, and his only contact with the outside world was listening to foreign radio broadcasts on an old radio.

Speaking after the coup ended, Mr Gorbachev’s praise seemed like a triumph of BBC journalism.

A former BBC newsroom journalist then spoilt the celebrations by writing to the staff newspaper Ariel: "Before this tribute becomes enshrined in BBC mythology perhaps you could ask Monitoring to tell us exactly what Gorbachev said. Just in the interests of impartial reporting."

Mr Gorbachev had been talking about how his guards had rigged up an aerial to receive foreign radio broadcasts and "The BBC sounded best."

John Tusa rejects that technical interpretation, recalling the news conference at which Mr Gorbachev made his remarks.

"It was clear from the laughter and applause from the international press that greeted his remarks that they all took it as I believe it was meant - as a tribute both to the BBC Russian Service’s journalism, as well as their audibility."

Tusa added that at the same news conference, the President asked where the BBC correspondent was. "When it turned out he was not present - he was probably monitoring it on TV in the BBC office - Gorbachev said: 'Never mind. The BBC knows everything already.'"

World Service on the television

Back in 1968, the then BBC director general Sir Charles Curran considered using satellites to beam the Corporation’s radio and television programmes across the world.

At the time he admitted the cost would be too great; and for many years the idea was put on ice. Even when in 1988, some 20 later, the BBC drew up detailed plans for a news service to be sent to local television stations for rebroadcasting, cost again was the drawback.

The government ruled out the proposals, saying "the provision of public funds to the BBC for this purpose would not be justified."

The decision led the Corporation to look at an alternative means of funding - running a service as a commercial business.

The BBC’s Governors approved the idea in 1990, and the first World Service Television news broadcast went out to Europe on 11 March, 1991 on a channel called BBC TV Europe, set up in 1987 to rebroadcast domestic BBC programmes.

The channel became BBC World Service Television a month later, on 15 April. As the 1990s went on, the station, later BBC World, began broadcasting by satellite to Asia, the Middle East, Africa and the Americas.

A voice for democracy

Aung San Suu Kyi is the leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD) in Myanmar. She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for her efforts to bring democracy to the country.

She has been detained one way or another by the Burmese authorities for ten of the past 17 years, despite overwhelming support for her and her party. In 1990 the military government staged some national elections and the NLD won the polls. She was under house arrest at the time and was therefore disqualified from standing.

Shortly after she was released from her very first house arrest she spoke to BBC correspondent Fergal Keane. She had been under house arrest since July 1989 and was released in July 1995.

In an interview for the Burmese Service she said she would bring democracy to Burma as long as the Burmese people supported her.

Massacre in Rwanda

The BBC’s ability to respond to events around the world showed in the horrific events in Rwanda in 1994.

The traditional tension between the Tutsis and Hutus exploded into genocide after a plane carrying the Presidents of Rwanda and neighbouring Burundi was shot down. Hutus began a wave of violence against Tutsis.

In response, the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front began a military campaign to take over the country. Within three months it had succeeded, but by then 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus had been massacred.

Two million Hutus then fled to Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo.

In this conflict, radio played a fatal role. The Rwandan station Radio Mille Collines broadcast propaganda against Hutus that has been blamed for inciting the violence.

The BBC helped to restore the balance at the request of aid organisations. Producers from the French and Swahili services who spoke the languages of the region, Kinyarwanda and Kirundi, worked with the Red Cross to provide a lifeline to the displaced millions, with detailed information about the missing.

The programme was only 15 minutes long, but research in 1995 in refugee camps in Tanzania, Burundi and Zaire found the BBC had the highest audience of all the international broadcasters. The service was later expanded to become the Great Lakes Service.

Problems with Arabic TV

Just as, back in 1938, Arabic had been the first foreign language service to be provided by the BBC on radio, so it was on television.

In July 1994 the Corporation launched BBC Arabic Television for the Middle East and North Africa.

It had hoped to get British government funding for the project, but this was refused and instead the financing came from Orbit Communications, a subsidiary of a Saudi Arabian company connected with the Saudi royal family.

Orbit promised the BBC editorial independence, but once the new station was operating, tensions began.

In April 1996, after a programme was shown about human rights in Saudi Arabia, Orbit switched off the transmitters.

Later that year, several of the staff began working for a new Arabic television station, Al-Jazeera.

News by computer

What was believed to be the world’s biggest and most complicated news computer system was introduced into Bush House in January 1992.

The EDiT system (Editing, Distribution and Translation) was used to handle and transfer information between the newsroom and the separate language services EdiT took five years to develop and was able to cope with 37 languages, including those with non-roman alphabets like Arabic, Chinese, Hindi and Russian.

Wiring Bush House for the new computer needed 100 kilometres of fibre optic and copper cabling.

Kosovo crisis

When Nato warplanes bombed Serbia in March 1999 - to force it to stop the violence against ethnic Albanians in the region of Kosovo - it was the first time the alliance had attacked a sovereign European country.

At Bush House, the Albanian and Serbian services immediately began broadcasting extra 15-minute news bulletins daily.

Output also increased in Macedonian, Bulgarian, Hungarian, Greek and Polish. The Albanian Service worked in partnership with the Red Cross to help to reunite families and friends from Kosovo who were split up as they fled to Albania.

Even before the Nato bombing began, audience research indicated that half the adult population in Albania were regular BBC listeners.

Going online

The amazing growth of the internet during the 1990s meant the BBC had new ways of supplying information - and receiving it.

In March 1999, one programme alone received 14,000 email messages. Listeners were responding to the interactive debating forum Talking Point which was broadcast simultaneously on radio and the internet and dealt with the Kosovo crisis.

When Nato’s bombing began against Serbia, listeners in Serbia, Albania and Macedonia were also able to hear BBC World Service programmes on the internet.

The World Service provides international news for the BBC website and early foreign language versions were in Arabic, Mandarin, Russian and Spanish. Now, in 2006, the BBC website features news and audio in 33 languages.

Goodbye Germany

Hitler could not silence it, but in March 1999, the German Service finally went off-air as the BBC revised its priorities for the 21st century.

Although it was hugely influential during the Second World War and the Cold War, the service’s broadcasts were felt to have lost their importance.

Audience research indicated that nine out of 10 opinion formers, who were its target audience, were now listening to the World Service in English.

As one German newspaper said, tongue in cheek: "We all now speak English well enough. And anyone who doesn't isn't worthy of the BBC."

World Service Trust

The BBC World Service Trust brought together some pre-existing initiatives in Bush House which had a focus on international development.

It was created as an independent charity in October 1999 and continues to have three aims. The World Service Training Trust provides BBC training to broadcasters and trainers in developing and transition countries.

The Trust also co-ordinates - funded by external bodies - educational programming on the BBC World Service and its partner stations.

The third element was the brainchild of Sir John Tusa, then managing director of the BBC World Service. He established the 'BBC Marshall Plan of the Mind' with funding from DFID and others to provide civic education and capacity building in the countries of the Former Soviet Union and east and central Europe.

While these bodies had specific areas of focus, they all shared the common vision of using the power of media and communications through the BBC for a common, positive purpose.

It was with this in mind, and recognising the potential for using the media strategically for development purposes, that the Trust was created.

 
 
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