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Centre of attention

Liliane Landor | 15:51 UK time, Monday, 16 July 2007

There is something about the media hyping of the World Service in the wake of Alan Johnston's release that makes me slightly uncomfortable.

World Service logoWe 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?

Alan JohnstonOf 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....


  • 1.
  • At 05:04 PM on 16 Jul 2007,
  • Jon wrote:

As a Brit who often travels, I always listen to the World Service when abroad as opposed to local radio/TV. The depth of coverage, commitment to report on important issues and lack of bias are unsurpassed in my experience.

My one request relates to the balance between the World Service providing a service to the people of the world, and to UK licence fee payers who are travelling in the world. As one of the latter group, I would like more coverage of UK news and sport (just as important when struggling to keep up with the latest Test match while in foreign parts). My sense is that coverage of UK matters has decreased in the last decade or so, as the (wholly to be commended) growth of the World Service as a source of impartial news to the people of the world has proceeded.

  • 2.
  • At 05:09 PM on 16 Jul 2007,
  • John R wrote:

I must confess to being one of those "insomniacs who listen when Radio 4 is off air" but those little snippets of late-night listening still often contain gems to be treasured.

Apart from the excellent news bulletins there are wonderful cultural titbits: I first discovered Gogol Bordello on a World Service music programme, and the radio drama "Metropolis" last summer kept me listening enraptured into the wee small hours. I also download the Documentary Archive podcasts to enrich my morning commute.

Thanks to you and the rest of the World Service for providing something worth being awake for!

  • 3.
  • At 05:26 PM on 16 Jul 2007,
  • Adam wrote:

Yes, the World Service does news extremely well. I love listening to the World Service to get my news as it's one of the very few places that still does proper news without all the endless dumbing down that seems to go on elsewhere.

Just one request: could you boost the power of your short wave transmissions? I always take my short wave radio with me when I travel just so I can listen to the World Service, but more than half the time I just can't get a good enough signal.

The BBC never rests on its laurels but tries to grow on constructive criticism.That is why this flagship grows from strength to strength and is respected the world over.There is a wealth of information finely intertwined with the cultural diversity that the programmes represent.Obviously the resources are used judiciously and the BBC editorial team has to be congratulated for their brilliant balance.

  • 5.
  • At 07:59 PM on 16 Jul 2007,
  • Brendan McCarthy wrote:

I was grateful for the WS this month while on holiday in Finland. But it can sound sometimes like a radio station broadcasting from 'nowhere' with a very anodyne internationalist perspective and as bland as the International Herald Tribune.

Those of us who are not Britons should reasonably expect some coverage of Britain on the World Service. It's where you are based - and it is a part of the world on which you can claim particular authority. Where else on shortwave is any proper coverage of the UK to be found?

But in your morning (12095 khz) broadcast to Eastern Europe I would expect five minutes on the UK somewhere along the way. There's nothing - I'd argue that that is an editorial lapse.

  • 6.
  • At 09:24 PM on 16 Jul 2007,
  • Karen C wrote:

I confess that I did not listen to World Service regularly before Alan Johnston was abducted, and it was his abduction that drew my attention to it. I listened to it on my laptop when I was online, and through my digital television service while I was downstairs. I have been a regular listener now for some months, and am now the proud owner of a digital radio. I love listening to From Our Own Correspondent; the insights of your journalists are compulsive listening. This service provides such high quality and varied reporting; something that seems to be lacking in the media in general. I'm so sorry that it took such a terrible event to get me interested in BBC World Service, but I will always be grateful to Alan. I hope he's back with you soon.

  • 7.
  • At 09:53 PM on 16 Jul 2007,
  • Peter North wrote:

"We've finessed impartiality down to a fine art."

Who are you trying to kid?

You clearly never listened to your own coverage of the Lebanon war.

"We do not boost, we do not label, we do not "belong""

That is what is wrong with you people.

While decent people everywhere have no problem boosting western secular values and labeling the likes of Hezbollah and Hamas as terrorist thugs it's far too partial for you. You do not "belong" to the moral British society. You have equivocated and neutralized into the hands of the enemies of liberty.

My question is, why bother when Al Jazeera does it for you?

The fact that licence fee money goes to the likes of you is the reason I don't own a TV anymore.

  • 8.
  • At 06:09 AM on 17 Jul 2007,
  • James H wrote:

Dear Liliane Landor,
I claim to be one of your most faithful regular listeners to the World Service(situated in South India) for the last 6 years and a frequent sender of email which is received by Alastair Elphick and Thomas Dahlhaus.

But I am afraid you have told a downright lie, concerning the audience figures. "We broadcast to 37.6 million people in English alone". That maybe official BBC internal stuff but it does not check out. Is it "global people" or "homes"? Is it potential or confirmed? is it broadcast on radio waves or by satellite or on Internet?
The BBC has never spent the money on audience researchg that advertising -financed media does. They know hourly figures for their ads as you must know.
The BBC's charming finger in the air statistics are laughed-at in advertising agencies, starting with your 37.6 million. Try selling a soap on those figures.
You are a great team of journalists, specialists in covering and treating hard news, but maybe some of you dont know what you do know when it comes to international broadcasting.

I have to say that I'm shocked by just how self-satisfied you are in your boast that the WS is impartial and unbiased, especially in view of the overwhelming evidence that the WS (and the BBC in general) is regarded as highly partisan and propagandist in the Muslim world.

When I listen to the WS, and when I scan your schedules, I'm always struck by the inordinate amount of airtime given to programmes and news items about the Holocaust and the "suffering" of the Israelis amid "a sea of barbarous Arabs" - whither your impartiality?

Almost invariably when you cover Islamic politics you present the Islamist alternative as one of unremitting evil and tyranny. No wonder that your non-Muslim listeners are left increasingly bewildered that Muslims the world over, given a democratic choice, are increasingly electing Islamist parties (because they represent justice, honest government and law and order, as opposed to the corrupt, oppressive "secularists" that the West favours).

The fact is that your bias is so blatant that you are even blinded by it yourselves.

Your modesty becomes you but please revel in the attention as much as possible - that way, people in the UK might start listening and next time they come to cut the WS it will be much harder politically...
Charlie Beckett

  • 11.
  • At 10:25 AM on 17 Jul 2007,
  • Biscuit Lad wrote:

I used to endure the WS when I lived in Rome. Almost 4 years of the most infuriating coverage imaginable - the WS is a propaganda machine for pre-war, middle class cultural values. Ever heard working class voices and views on the WS? You won't - so don't try. Fancy listening to sport? Sorry, the maximum we can ever allow you is half a football match. Half a football match? What blighted ignorance decided that was fair or reasonable?

Yes, you can revel in your excellent news coverage, but as other people have pointed out - what Brits abroad want is more coverage of home affairs. Very often your 'world view' puts Britain last. I don't think that's where the tax payer who pays for the service wants it.

Please WS, get with a modern agenda - the days of foreign travel being reserved for the middle classes have long since gone. People of all classes have a right to know what's happening at home, over and above that of some obscure African state or some part of the Polynesian Islands.

If the WS doesn't change in this brave new world, it will become irrelevant, as people will sideline it to listen to their favourite BBC station on the web!

  • 12.
  • At 10:59 AM on 17 Jul 2007,
  • Bedd Gelert wrote:

Can I also suggest you 'blow your own trumpet' rather more ??

Reading this article today is the first time in my life I have realised that it is possible to tune in to the 'World Service' in the UK without logging on to the internet !!

I had no idea what frequency it was on, or even whether it was on Short Wave, Medium Wave or Long Wave. You may take it for granted that people know this information - but I can assure you that they do not !

More publicity about this on a proper World Service 'Homepage' would be a good start - instead of just being directed to the 'International' News Home Page. Maybe with a Flash graphic of the globe, with the various global frequencies for tuning into the World Service.

One could save this 'web-page' for reference to it when one is out of range of internet access.

[...] But I guess the trophy goes to the BBC, which took upon itself to put the story into a neat, civilizational context:

"So now the judges in particular and Morocco in general have a choice. And it is not an easy one. Do they side with liberal values and win the admiration of Western democracies, or do they uphold their Islamic traditions and receive the backing of most of the Arab world? But laughter, like freedom, the journalists said, could not be suppressed."

So here you've it, it's either "liberal values" or "Islamic traditions" and the backing of either "Western democracies" or the "Arab world". How lame? [...]

  • 14.
  • At 11:17 AM on 17 Jul 2007,
  • John Griffith wrote:

The World Service is a shining jewel in the BBC's crown. Peter North has got it fundamentally wrong. It would be interesting to know where he is based. Certainly not in a prison cell.

Long live the World service AND its neutrality.

  • 15.
  • At 11:30 AM on 17 Jul 2007,
  • Steve wrote:

- - - - - - - - - - - - -
"While decent people everywhere have no problem boosting western secular values and labeling the likes of Hezbollah and Hamas as terrorist thugs it's far too partial for you. You do not "belong" to the moral British society. You have equivocated and neutralized into the hands of the enemies of liberty." - Peter North
- - - - - - - - - - - - -

For every complainant like Mr North harping on about the "enemies of liberty", there will be someone else who feels the BBC was too supine in its reporting of acts of aggression from the UK/US/West, which, in the case of the recent bombardment of Lebanon and mass killing of innocents, even British conservative ministers were willing to label as provocative and utterly counterproductive. Yes I have a bias and I thought it should have been reported for what it was - aggression. I also think the BBC let us down in the way it unquestioningly trumpeted government propaganda in the build up to the invasion of Iraq.

But then I'm willing to concede that the BBC World Service has to cater to those who hold views diametrically opposed to mine, so it probably has it about right.

  • 16.
  • At 01:47 PM on 17 Jul 2007,
  • trubba wrote:

it's a mighty long sail from india to china ...

  • 17.
  • At 02:22 PM on 17 Jul 2007,
  • James Edwards wrote:

If Peter North had done a minimum of research before publicsing his clearly biased view of the world he would know that the BBC World Service is NOT paid for out of the licence fee. It is a good job that the WS newsroom does not shoot from the hip in the same manner.

  • 18.
  • At 11:01 PM on 17 Jul 2007,
  • gail lewis wrote:

I love the world service and treat it more and more as my default radio station, even though I am one of those UK based listeners. Even apart from the quality of the reporting, comment, analysis and the range of coverage, what I also love is the feeling of being connected to other listeners from around the globe. I wonder what people in say Iraq, or Mali or Jamaica or Papua, New Guinea, or Atlanta Goergia are making of the same item I am listening to: whether they are finding it provocative when I am, narrow, deeply informative or thought provoking (for the coverage is all these things and more). And that makes me remember that the view from London, or England, or UK, or Europe etc is not the only view. Its great and I love it so keep on keeping on - and thanks to all your team.

  • 19.
  • At 11:12 PM on 17 Jul 2007,
  • Joseph wrote:

In response to No#16, I suggest that you should check your facts, the British tax payers has paid for the BBC WS, I suggest that you stop shooting from the hip.

People in glass houses should not throw stones and your own biased opinion defeats any supposed high ground you are aiming for.

Living in the Netherlands I can clearly state that the BBC WS is abysmal at reporting British news, every morning I am subjected to reporters attacking America, Catholics, Muslims and the Tory party!.

Yet I have to listen to the Dutch news to find out what is actually happening in UK.

  • 20.
  • At 12:22 AM on 18 Jul 2007,
  • David G wrote:

Its fantastic wherever you go you can get a news source that you trust!

Its great that bbc are broadcasting to the Iranians, they need some unbiased news, its great for us brits when in the states to get some real world news.

keep up the good work!

  • 21.
  • At 12:34 AM on 18 Jul 2007,
  • Inna wrote:

The arguments about whether the World Service (or the BBC for that matter) is biased or not have all been rehearsed and re-rehearsed so well that I am quite certain everyone knows their lines by now. So it's pointless to get into that.

I do however have a question: if the BBC is convinced that it is impartial, why must it repeat this so often? I see the BBC stating that it is "impartial" and "unbiased" several times per week on this blog alone--and then of course there are the letters to the editor, etc.

Surely, unbiased reporting should simply be evident and need not be trumpeted like this from every rooftop and indeed every nook and corner?



  • 22.
  • At 12:33 PM on 18 Jul 2007,
  • Hashmat Moslih wrote:

I observed a minute of silence for the time which I unfortunately killed reading your nonsense.

  • 23.
  • At 04:13 PM on 18 Jul 2007,
  • James Edwards wrote:

A reply to Joseph at No 19. I suspect he was commenting on my post at 17 rather than that at 16. Glass houses and stones comes to mind. Maybe he has lived away from the UK so long he is unaware that licence fee payers are not necessarily all tax payers, British or otherwise. He is also clearly unaware that WS is not designed as a service for Brits overseas. They make up an extremely small proportion of the listenership.The days of The Empire Service are long gone.As for the high ground, WS news achieves it with every bulletin. One could go on but there is clearly little point.

  • 24.
  • At 07:20 AM on 19 Jul 2007,
  • Connor wrote:

Well put Liliane!

Its great too that Alan Johnston is back in Bush House. I almost hope we don't hear him on air too soon, because we want to be confident that he has the chance to recover psychologically from his kidnapping.

It is interesting to see how many British people turn to the BBC for news of home, and even sports coverage. I don't think that is really the remit of the World Service though.

British Abroad is probably fairly easy to define as an audience group though. Coming from one of the world's richest countries, it can be assumed that internet access will often be available to them – and so they can be directed to the domestic services. But that's not an issue for the World Service, certainly not WS News.

I think not having News About Britain or the like, relieves the World Service of a big headache, and possible political pressures. That's good.

I see where James H is coming from though… the World Service is about news, not marketing, and as a listener, I expect the BBC values to be applied in all areas.

Anyway, long live the World Service! Hey, David Milliband, give them more money!

  • 25.
  • At 08:53 AM on 19 Jul 2007,
  • Bill Lee wrote:

The BBCWS is ok, but has lately
become a world of stringers, not staff;
newsreaders, not actors; and talk, not drama
nor music.

The world service, with some clever
cross-listening on the shortwave, could
get a variety of streams and programmes
on two or three sets and didn't
have to listen to news, same old news
this hour, and this.... all day.

Bring back Andy Kershaw, find another
John Peel and give us 10 hours of drama and readings
a day, 4 hours of science and technology, now environment, and
8 hours of sports, including live of the
current TdF as well as your small
news bits.

I do miss East Asia Today in its
three editions (end of the day in Asia was
your morning, and you had a noon and morning summary)
The world has nothing to lose but its

  • 26.
  • At 08:59 AM on 19 Jul 2007,
  • Sam wrote:

oh please another rant by a editor assuring us the BBC is impartial because 'you say so'.

Well i'm sorry but all the evidence points the other way. Wasn't it you who were telling the jihadists that took alan 'he's your friend'?

Impartiality my eye. If you were impartial you would not of continuously flooded the airwaves with your campaign for alan johnston and completely ignoring the Gilad Shalit story.

The BBC is worse than just partial it is also anti semitic.

  • 27.
  • At 05:29 PM on 19 Jul 2007,
  • C. P. Raj wrote:

I still consider the old format of the news presentation better: 10 Minutes of World News followed by News about Britain plus Radio Newsreel in which the foreign correspondents signed off their despatch with their name and location. It brought a sense of immediacy to us and we had forged an invisible link with the Correspondents who seemed to be a part of our inner circle.

I sincerely feel that the quality of broadcasts has been compromised in recent times. A cacophany of accents are heard. There is no semblance of recognisable uniformity about the pronunciation. It is alright to say that the medley of accents reflects the reality of Britain. But it only infuriates and confuses the generality of listeners to the World Service. At least the newsbulletins should be insulated from the exasperating invasion of unpleasant accents of thick African and Indian accents. R.P should be the general rule. Please do not lower the standards that you had earlier established.
Thanks and good wishes to all those who slog at the BBC newsrooms and to the foreign correspondents who keep the flag of the BBC flying.

  • 28.
  • At 09:00 PM on 19 Jul 2007,
  • Karen C wrote:

"Fancy listening to sport? Sorry, the maximum we can ever allow you is half a football match. Half a football match? What blighted ignorance decided that was fair or reasonable?"

I listen to World Service to get away from the incessant sporting coverage on terrestrial channels, both TV and radio. I listen to WS so I can get an idea of what is going on in the world, as few other media are bothered about human stories from places such as Somalia, Gaza, India, Libya, Peru, or wherever WS send their journalists. You have the internet now to listen to your Radio 5 Live or whatever it is, for your sport. Please realise that WS is not just for Brits abroad. There is enough dumbing down in the media at present, including the BBC. Leave WS alone. No football please, there is enough already!

  • 29.
  • At 08:16 AM on 20 Jul 2007,
  • Robert Hendry wrote:

The world service does not have impartiality down to a fine art. In fact I have listened to a number of items that have been downright biased and some have been blatantly anti british citizen in tone. The miniscule amount of UK coverage could certainly be improved but I personally understand this is not the prime directive of the WS.

Other than that the WS is great and long may it continue. I just hope the powers at be are very careful at who they employ at the WS because I have certainly listened to totally biased reporting that is abundant on mainstream BBC UK news in particularl the global warming issue which is still a theory.

While standards are very high at the WS management and editorial really need to be careful of dilution and young reporters who have been brought up in our decadent culture would think nothing of spinning it their way.

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