This was an unimaginable shock. The ‘Sharabkhana’ or the Bush House Club was empty on a Friday evening. Though I was always teased as a ‘juicewalla’ by my lager-guzzling friends, I grew up admiring the spirit of the place. This was a unique assembly point where BBC’s famous broadcasters from Europe, Asia, Africa and Americas met most evenings and gossiped about everything from global politics to departmental promotions with the help of subsidised alcohol.
Our former colleague Rama Pandey, who had come from India, and Kailash Budhwar, the former head of the Hindi Service, decided to have a final farewell meeting at Bush House. And here we were, approximately a dozen colleagues with their spouses, many of us meeting after almost a decade, sharing our post BBC lives. Let me go back 30 years. Soon after I landed at Heathrow on a dark and cold November evening, I was taken straight to the Bush House Club by my new colleagues. Coming from a small town in western Uttar Pradesh, I was nervous and a little scared. It was a bustling Club, the centre of hot debate and intense drinking.
Today that sharabkhana, as we used to call it, lies empty and the historic Bush House originally dedicated ‘To the friendship of English speaking people’ is lifeless. The historic building, that has served as the headquarters of the BBC World Service since 1940 is being closed down. Languages services have been sent to their respective countries and the English service will be shifted to the BBC’s newly refurbished domestic headquarter, Broadcasting House.This was the place that played a crucial part in defeating Hitler’s propaganda machine. This was the place that served as one of the frontier posts to counter the Soviet propaganda during the Cold War and this was the place that welcomed the world’s statesmen, politicians, artists, scientists and sportsmen almost daily. In the age of the new media, the BBC World Service, as we knew it in India on its crackly shortwave, is in terminal decline. Yet the BBC bosses continue to flaunt new figures.
In May 2010, BBC officially claimed to have a weekly global audience of 241 million people across radio, television, online and mobile services, a gain of three million over the previous year. Critics viewed the figures with some disbelief.
Peter Horrocks, the Global News Director, said that these record audiences “come to us for journalism that is challenging and ask difficult questions, yet respect different points of view and actively encourage debate.” Hidden in this sweetener was a bitter pill, as Horrocks warned of a continuous decline in short wave audiences. He said, “Unless BBC World Service can accelerate its response to thechanges, it will face a rapid deterioration of its impact as other technologies become more prominent in international media markets”.
The BBC lost out in three of its major markets - 8.2 million in India, 7 million in Bangladesh and a decline of 2.9 million in Nigeria. The audience did increase in some of the trouble spots like Tanzania, Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran. As technology developed and 24x7 global television news grew in popularity, the BBC began to plan for a massive shift in its delivery network. Short-wave was abandoned and a frantic attempt was made to solicit AM, FM, satellite and cable partners across the globe. By March 2012, the BBC had about 2,000 partner radio stations in almost 200 countries. They were small radio stations hungry for quality content that the BBC offered it free in some cases.
The BBC now broadcasts through local FM station in many countries, including our neighbours like Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh but not in India. Our immovable bureaucracy still refuses to permit news and current affairs on private radio stations. But the BBC worked its way around Indian officialdom by offering readymade radio features on sports, science, environment, art and culture to many FM channels.
The BBC also found a way to broadcast live news from Indian soil. It set up a huge radio operation, including broadcast studios, in Delhi, within 500 yards of the Indian Parliament and began to broadcast live news and current affairs. These broadcasts go via telephone lines to BBC transmitters outside India and are then beamed into the air. It’s a perfectly legal way to undermine the stranglehold of India’s archaic broadcasting regulations and obstructionist babus. The technology has changed, Indian bureaucracy hasn’t.
Claims of growing audience didn’t bring any relief to the BBC’s demoralised staff. On 26 January 2011, the BBC World Service confirmed that another 650 jobs would be lost at the Bush House due to the 16 per cent cuts in Foreign Office funding. Most of the BBC World Service funding comes from the foreign ministry and it will be totally stopped after 2014. Five foreign language services – Serbia, Mecedonia,Albania, the Caribbean and Portuguese for Africa – were to be shut down. Radio broadcasts to China, Russia, Turkey and the Arab world were slashed. Hindi transmissions were to be closed within a year. A skeleton service was to continue through Internet streaming. It was a big shock. Many in India could not believe it.
BBC’s veteran India correspondent was ‘astonished’. Nostalgic BBC followers like Arundhati Roy, Vikram Seth and others wrote an open letter: “BBC Hindi transmissions are accessible in rural and remote areas and, as short-wave receivers can be battery operated, they are available in places without electricity or during power cuts; they are essential source of learning for school children and college students in rural India preparing for competitive exams and they cannot be silenced in times when democracy is under threat.”
Many in India found it a bit patronising. They seemed unaware of the fact that over the years the quality of BBC Hindi programmes had suffered gravely. Also, India’s aspiring rural youth now had access to a nearby cyber cafe where they could Google search any topic of interest for as less as Rs 5 per hour. Yes, until a decade ago, many tuned in to BBC Hindi programmes like ‘Gyan Vigyan’ and ‘Hamse Puchiye’ to update their knowledge, but not anymore.
The deterioration began really in 1992 when Director-General John Birt started restructuring the BBC in accordance with the then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s privatisation policies. Birt’s plan had no scope for any opposition. Anyone who disagreed had to move out of the BBC. One of the BBC’s leading journalists, Panorama editor David Wickham described Birt as “phenomenally arrogant”. BBC India’s voice Mark Tully, a staunch believer in the BBC’s public service ethos, was one of the main critics of Birt. In 1996, he wrote a damming open letter criticising plans for the future of the BBC World Service. A few months later Tully had to resign. The day Tully resigned I was editing the BBC’s daily English news programme called the South Asia Report. News agencies were buzzing with the news of the veteran journalist’s resignation. We had to report the story and I telephoned Mark Tully for an interview. As usual with Tully, we planned for a live interview during the programme. A few minutes later I got a call from the Head of South Asia directing me not to do a live interview. I apologised to Tully and recorded an interview. The man who had been BBC India’s voice for more than two decades, who was one of the BBC’s most respected journalist was not to be trusted anymore! Disrespect and distrust of experience, talent and maturity was the indelible hallmark of Birtism. Following the example of boss soon numerous mini-Birts appeared all over the BBC. Independent minds were soon out of favour and a new flattering class grew in a culture of sycophancy.
Indian journalists working in the BBC were demoralised because of a pay scale structure favouring the British employees, with a broadcast assistant being paid three times more than a senior Indian broadcast journalist. Working conditions were not good, resources meager and itwas clear that BBC was bound to fail.
Meanwhile, BBC’s Delhi operation gathered pace. The process of restructuring, initiated in 2000, however is still in the process. The Hindi Service in London is now with just two staff members but the future of the BBC Delhi operation remains uncertain because of a paucity of funds for foreign language broadcasts.
BBC was a hugely respected brand in India with over a 20 million audience. With such a formidable consumer base, vision and planning could not only have saved but rather strengthened the BBC network i India.
Unfortunately its future now is under a question mark, as BBC itself seems to be bowing out of the international arena.