Kate Chisholm

In from the cold

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When it was announced earlier this week that Aung San Suu Kyi will soon be cast away for Desert Island Discs, it was suggested her choices of music will be ‘really interesting’, because, under house arrest in Burma, she had been forced to live in ‘a time warp, a capsule away from the world’. But will she really be so out of touch with the musical tastes of Radio 4 listeners?

Suu Kyi has often mentioned her gratitude to the BBC, and the World Service in particular, for leading her to places, ideas, music and poetry that were located and inspired thousands of miles away from the house where she was confined just outside Rangoon. (Her admiration for the World Service has been echoed by political prisoners everywhere from John McCarthy in the Bekaa Valley in the 1980s to Ingrid Betancourt in the Colombian jungle almost 20 years later.)

The role that the World Service plays on the global stage is often under-appreciated. Its audience is huge, 43.7 million a week listen to its English-language programmes alone, plus all the listeners to the 28 specialist language services (up to 180 million), and far-reaching (as the stories of Suu Kyi, McCarthy and Betancourt demonstrate). Its status within the BBC hierarchy is just about to change dramatically, both financially, through the proposed transfer of its funding from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to the licence fee, which will happen in 2014, and physically, now that Bush House, its home since 1941, has been abandoned. Will it lose something of its identity, squashed by the ebullient diversity of Radios 1 to 6? Or will it bring something of the world into those domesticated networks, broadening the perspective and adding new voices?

It’s been 71 years since the World Service was given its own home in that grand and rather pompous building pivoted between Kingsway, Fleet Street and the Strand. Until then as the Empire Service it had been just another network within the BBC, alongside the Home (or National) Service and all the regional stations (the Light and Third came later). In Bush House it developed a very different character, creating a kind of benign Tower of Babel, a place within whose labyrinth of corridors you might hear fluent Pashtu one minute and Mandarin Chinese the next. Its reputation for deep and wide news coverage that could be relied upon as accurate was secured in these years. But also much more than that, as we discovered in John Tusa’s programme for Radio 4,  Goodbye to Bush House (produced by Anna Horsbrugh-Porter).

The World Service showed the BBC what radio could do beyond mere information, reaching out to Occupied France (with de Gaulle’s five-minute broadcasts every day for four years from Bush House), speaking to those trapped behind the Iron Curtain, especially in Moscow, and encouraging those involved in the Tiananmen Square uprising in China.

Now the World Service has been brought back inside the BBC, to the zany orange and red studios of the new Broadcasting House building in the heart of the West End. The specialist language services — Urdu, Hausa, Swahili, Persian, etc. — will be sharing newsroom space with their English-speaking colleagues. You could say it’s cost-cutting (and it is), but hot-desking, shedding one building to move in with the rest of the BBC, does also mean that the insights, the insider knowledge, the sense of speaking to (and serving) an audience beyond London and the shires has been brought in from Bush House. Could it reinvigorate the BBC, which on occasion can sound rather too pleased with itself?

On Monday, the World Service launches a new breakfast show, Newsday, aimed at the English-speaking audience in Africa — because 70 per cent of listeners to the World Service at that time of day are in Africa — and presented from both London and Johannesburg. You could say again it’s cost-cutting, providing five-and-a-half-hours’ worth of programme with just one editorial team. But, says Andrew Whitehead (editor of BBC World Service News), ‘It’s a very competitive market out there, and we’ve got to be offering something that really grabs the audience.’

Newsday, presented by Lawrence Pollard and Lerato Mbele, will make ‘better use of the correspondents in Africa’ (the World Service has 60 reporters based around the continent), which will give the programme ‘an ability to call on local knowledge’ immediately when there are African stories to report. Conversely, it will be able to use the expertise of the BH newsroom in London for stories outside Africa. Many of these ‘conversations’ about events will not necessarily be ‘from the western perspective’, says the editor in charge of Newsday, Simon Peeks. ‘We’ll be more aware of the way the audience is listening to the story...not so much delivering the information, but having a conversation about it.’

The intention is to give listeners in Nairobi, Djibouti, Dar es Salaam something each day to bring to the water-cooler at the office. Might it also give listeners in Norwood, Dorchester and Dunkeld something to chew over?