One day in the troubled 1980s I was driving towards Sidon in South Lebanon when I was stopped by a militia checkpoint. The gunman manning it looked at my press pass and asked, ‘Who do you work for?’ ‘BBC,’ I replied. ‘Huna London! Hai’at al-Idhaa al-Britaniyya!’ he declaimed in solemn newsreader tones. This is London, the BBC.
Throughout the Arab world, millions of people grew up to the chimes of Big Ben heralding another news bulletin, kicked off by the Huna London call sign. For decades after it was launched in 1938, it was seen by many as the only reliable source of news, especially in times of crisis – which meant a lot of the time. Small wonder that when the sound waves fell starkly silent on 27 January, there was a feeling akin to bewildered bereavement for many.
‘So many memories of my life are linked to BBC,’ said the Lebanese Druze leader Walid Joumblatt. ‘It is a very sad day. I used to listen to BBC Arabic every day starting at 8 a.m. for the last five decades if not more. It was a school for Arabic language and literature, it offered the Arabs the best of their own music and great talents. BBC was also an objective broadcast away from partisanship.’
Nostalgia was the order of the day. But in a region where national media are tightly controlled by undemocratic regimes, many listeners believed the service to be as relevant in recent critical times as it was in the old days. ‘I grew up waking up to BBC Arabic radio from my late Grandpa’s radio every morning,’ tweeted a Syrian listener. ‘So much of what I learned was from this station. The ONLY access to non-propaganda trusted independent news for Syrians, decades ago and especially during the Syrian Revolution.’
The station played the same role for many Lebanese caught up in the vicious civil war that broke out there in 1975. ‘In Lebanon, during the civil war, my family would huddle silently around the radio to listen to BBC Arabic. We’d have to move the antenna often to hear clearly. It was our window to the world,’ said one listener.
‘Growing up, it was the only broadcast we used to listen to, a lot,’ said a Sudanese listener. ‘I even have a cousin who we called “Huna BBC” because he always had his radio tuned to it.’ ‘People in places like Sudan don’t have access to modern technology, and they rely on the BBC radio service, particularly the BBC Arabic for their daily news,’ tweeted another Sudanese.
Soft Power Lost
Clearly, apart from being a valued news source, the BBC Arabic service amounted to a classic example of ‘soft power,’ spreading British influence and values in an indefinable way that is hard to quantify and put a price on. Hence much of the reaction to the closure reflected astonishment that such an effective and pervasive instrument could be voluntarily renounced.
‘I do not understand the decision,’ said Amal Mudallali, Lebanon’s former ambassador to the United Nations. ‘Does the UK not know what it loses by doing this? It is the only thing people know and remember about “Britania” as we call it, in the region for generations.’
‘Awful and shocking that it’s closing,’ said a British commentator. ‘So short-sighted, especially when the Middle East and its people are pivotal in a changing world. A metaphor for a shrunken and inward-looking UK.’
The BBC is funded by a compulsory fee of £159 per year for every TV-owning household in the UK, and not all the reaction to the closure reflected unqualified admiration for the Arabic broadcasts. One British licence-fee payer said he was upset when he realised that ‘the licence was funding a service for Arabs.’ Another said ‘Good riddance, I’m always happy when the remnants of the empire go away.’
Domestically in the UK, the Arabic closure and related cuts played into an ongoing struggle over the future of the BBC. It provided ammunition for the foes of the current conservative government, which has frozen the licence fee for two years and is widely seen as bent on undermining an institution which is publicly financed but not government-controlled.
‘It really is baffling how a government that portrays itself as so patriotic and wanting to promote post-Brexit Britain around the world has done everything possible to destroy one of the country’s greatest assets and most reputable exports, the BBC,’ said one critic. ‘The damage this government is doing to Britain will take decades to repair (if ever),’ added another.
BBC Arabic radio was one of ten language services whose radio output was cut, including Persian and Chinese, as part of a wider slashing of BBC World Service budgets. The aim is to make some £28.5m (€32.48m) in annual savings, involving the loss of nearly 400 jobs (roughly 130 of them from the Arabic service). Given current tensions with Iran and China, the Arabic service cut was not the only one to raise eyebrows.
The writing was on the wall since at least 2014, when funding for the World Service and all its languages passed from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to the BBC itself (the licence fee). This made the language services much more vulnerable to the vagaries and pressures afflicting the wider BBC, always under attack from competitors because of its privileged position being financed by an obligatory licence fee.
Financial pressures also coincided with a shift in media trends, away from analogue radio broadcasting to television and online platforms. The BBC’s Arabic and Persian TV broadcasts will continue (with some uncertainty over their future) and the Arabic Service still has an online web page which may carry some audio content. The BBC will continue to provide digital online news in more than 40 languages in addition to World Service English broadcasts.
But the closing announcement from the BBC Arabic radio was more than a little misleading. ‘This is not goodbye, we are waiting for you on the website,’ it said, implying that people could simply put away their old radio sets and switch to the broadcast on their laptops, tablets or smartphones. Not so. In fact, the live radio broadcasts had been available on those platforms for several years. But they are no longer there now, and nor are many of the journalists who produced them. Only silence.
‘While we recognise the BBC must adapt to meet the challenges of a changing media landscape, once again it is workers who are hit by the government’s poorly judged political decisions – its freezing of the licence fee and the resulting funding challenges have necessitated these proposals,’ said Philippa Childs, head of the broadcasting union Bectu.
Identity Dilemma Lies Ahead
In the past, BBC Arabic’s identity and role were fairly clear. When it launched in 1938, when the World Service was called the Empire Service, it was the first of the many later language services, swiftly followed by German, Italian and French – reflecting Britain’s need to counter Nazi and fascist propaganda during the Second World War.
Later, the language services struggled to establish and maintain editorial independence despite being state-funded, an ambiguous situation that many autocratic governments could not grasp. During the revolution in Iran, the Persian service regularly broadcast statements in Farsi from Ayatollah Khomeini in his French exile and reported demonstrations inside the country, to the exasperation of the embattled shah, who frequently called in the British ambassador to complain.
Now, some of those still employed by BBC Arabic feel disorientated and directionless. ‘Our identity and mission used to be clear, but now it is confused,’ said one. ‘There does not seem to be a clear vision for the future. Digital is not a magic wand. What kind of product are we offering? We used to have a unique place. Now it is a jungle. With the demise of radio, is TV the next thing, or is TV the new old guy? It’s a quest, driven by money.’
Radio listeners around the region have alternative stations to switch to – Qatar-owned Al Jazeera has an Arabic radio service, and from Paris there are France24 and Radio Monte Carlo. Voice of America also broadcasts in Arabic. But the chimes of Big Ben and the call-sign Huna London have gone forever.