BBC: ridding itself of a troublesome Russian Service?

Robert Chandler
10 February 2009

The first stages of our ‘campaign' - which at the beginning we did not even think of as a campaign - were astonishingly easy.  Most British academics, journalists, diplomats and politicians with an interest in Russia have at one time or another contributed to the BBC Russian Service, and they are all concerned about the fate of Russian Features.  Many of them travel regularly to Russia.  Most have received feedback about programmes to which they have contributed, and the value of these programmes seemed entirely obvious to them.  One signatory of our draft letter forwarded it to another, and before long we had 64 signatories, many of them eminent, and on 7 November our letter was published in the Times, together with a supportive editorial and an article by the Times Media correspondent.

What seems obvious to us - and to the Times - has, however, been surprisingly hard to convey to the senior management of the World Service, which seems unable to grasp the nature of Putin's Russia.  It seems likely that they are being poorly advised, either by the FCO or by senior editors in the Russian Service itself.

The 2007 World Service ‘Operational Agreement' divides countries into three categories: ‘developed media markets, such as the United States and Western Europe'; ‘developing markets, such as China and Russia', where the BBC should be targeting ‘opinion formers and decision makers'; and the ‘least developed markets, such as Sub-Saharan Africa, where BBC World Service news operations may serve as substitutes for national broadcasters, where relevant, for example in countries where there is an absence of free and independent media' (I quote verbatim).  It is clear from these categories that the World Service management is under the delusion that both China and Russia - which has one of the highest death rates among journalists of any country in the world - are countries with ‘free and independent media'.  The ‘Operational Agreement' then goes on to say that ‘mass audiences' are to be targeted only in countries belonging to the third category, i.e. the ‘least developed markets'.  The World Service management evidently sees no need to address a mass audience in Russia, even though this audience is now constantly exposed to dangerously nationalist propaganda.

Lord Reith saw the BBC's mission as being to inform, to educate and to entertain.  Today's management sees it as the provision of ‘rolling news coverage'.  They do not seem to understand that what Russian listeners need - even more than reliable news - are fresh perspectives from which to view this news.  The question of the status of Abkhazia and South Ossetia provides a convenient example.  Most Russians believe that the West has adopted one standard for Kosovo - and another for these two regions.  This kind of issue - far too complex to be dealt with in a 3-minute ‘package' slotted into a news programme - has for many years been the staple material of the pre-recorded ‘features' that are about to be axed. 

The range and depth of its ‘features' has long been a successful trademark formula of the BBC's broadcasting to the rest of the world.  The format allows the setting up of a dialogue between people whom it might be impossible to bring together in any other way - because they do not share a common language, because they would refuse to speak to each other on principle, or simply because they live in different time zones.   A ‘feature' can achieve a depth, and a variety of viewpoint, that is impossible to achieve in a news programme.

Once ‘features' are gone, a tradition is lost and a significant audience worldwide (not only in Russia but also in the West and in other parts of the former Soviet Union) will turn elsewhere.  It is hard to understand why, when other language services get additional funding for the development of their television, the Russian service should be told that in order to develop its web-site it has to get rid of its most unique (and far cheaper) product.  It is also alarming that Nigel Chapman, in his responses to our 7 November letter in the Times, should have referred to ‘light features with little analysis' and ‘programmes that have ... little connection with cultural and political themes'.  We have already mentioned (in our 12 November letter to the Times) the huge variety of serious topics covered by features: ‘from the work of Doris Lessing to the closure of the British Council ... and the analysis of judgments made by the European Court of Human Rights'.  Nigel Chapman's dismissal of these programmes is alarming, above all, because it indicates that he is being poorly advised not only about the situation in contemporary Russia but also with regard to the quality of the output of his own service.

The proposed axing is still harder to understand in view of the fact that the English-language World Service still produces excellent ‘features'; it is only foreign-language features that are to be axed.  The most likely explanation for this divergence of policy is that the management looks on foreign-language ‘features' and their producers as awkward and uncontrollable.  The best ‘features' are often the ones that address the most controversial topics, and the World Service management want, above all, to avoid controversy in their language services.  Standardizing the output makes this easier.

The Russian Service - and, probably, many other of the language services - has good reason to want to avoid controversy.  By moving half of its staff and much of its production to Moscow, it has placed itself in a highly vulnerable position.  Its staff are vulnerable both to direct pressure from the Russian authorities and to the influence of a Russian media environment in which self-censorship has become the norm.

In Putin's Russia - as in the Soviet Union - everyone is vulnerable to pressure from the authorities.  Any BBC employee with relatives in Russia is vulnerable.  Anyone who has ever made even the very slightest compromise - even if only in the Soviet past - with the Russian security services is especially vulnerable.  Even British employees may exercise self-censorship because they are afraid of being denied a visa. 

That the Russian Service is terrified of offending the Kremlin has become only too obvious.  Their declared reason for refusing to publish on their website the Russian text of Anna Politkovskaya's Putin's Russia was that there was no available pro-Kremlin material with which to ‘balance' the book.  This is absurd.  If the Russian Service in the 1970s had carried the idea of impartiality to such an amoral extreme, they would not have allowed Solzhenitsyn to broadcast The Gulag Archipelago - or they would have done so only if the Kremlin had supplied them with material of equal weight in praise of the Gulag.

It is perhaps not surprising that pro-Kremlin bias is most evident in the handling of matters relating to the security services.  We have already written several times about the one-sided coverage of the murder of Aleksandr Litvinenko.  Another example of Russian Service sensitivities with regard to the KGB is their one-sided coverage of the recent death of the Orthodox Patriarch.  Western media outlets, including BBC English-language programmes, discussed his past as a KGB collaborator at length; the Russian Service barely mentioned it.

The Russian Service has to deal with many questions.  Some are technical: how best to deliver a signal; how best to balance resources between radio and the Internet.  Here the only prudent course is to explore as many options as possible.  Some are political: how best to deal with demands made by the Russian authorities.  Most serious of all is the question of the Russian Service's purpose.  This, at least, is easy to answer.  The only possible purpose of any of the foreign-language services is to disseminate views that cannot easily be heard in the target country.  The role of the World Service is to educate - and the BBC should not be ashamed to proclaim this.

The political situation in Russia is deteriorating fast.  The economic crisis has already led to popular protests.  These are likely to increase, and the authorities will probably respond with violence.  The need for an independent-minded BBC Russian Service may soon be greater than ever.  At the end of this month Nigel Chapman will be stepping down as Head of the World Service.  We very much hope that he will not wish to be remembered as the man who closed down the Russian Service's most valuable programmes just when there is a greater need for them than at any time in the last twenty years. 

(Robert Chandler is the translator of Vasily Grossman's novel Life and Fate and an intermittent contributor to the BBC Russian Service for 30 years)


5 January Letter from the BBC Director General, Mark Thompson to Robert Chandler

Dear Mr Chandler

Thank you for your letter of 4 December regarding your concerns about the Russian Service.

I understand that you have been in direct correspondence with Nigel Chapman, Director World Service, about this issue (in addition of course to recent exchanges in the press) and that Nigel has outlined in some detail the reasons for the changes to the service. I believe he has also offered you a meeting to explain the thinking behind them, and I hope that if it is convenient for you to do so you will feel able to take him up on this offer.

There are a number of new points in your letter, and I have therefore asked Nigel Chapman for his input into this response. I hope that you will feel it answers your concerns.

I should say first that I am sorry to learn that you do not agree with the changes to the service. However I hope you will accept that it is the BBC's responsibility to make what changes it believes to be necessary for the benefit of its audiences. These changes were approved by the BBC Trust and fully discussed with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, who I understand firmly support them. Like the BBC, they believe that they offer the best means of serving our audiences.

Your letter refers to the BBC's Royal Charter, which you believe specifies that the BBC must "offer thoughtful programmes that allow for genuine discussion of political and cultural matters from a number of points of view". We firmly believe that the World Service offers precisely the programmes which you describe. I think the most relevant part of the Charter on this point is in the Agreement (CM 6872). This says (para 1O.b) that the BBC Trust must ensure that the BBC "brings high quality international news coverage to international audiences", and (para 64.6.a) that the World Service objectives must include "the provision of an accurate, unbiased and independent news service, covering international and national developments".

We believe that the changes will deliver a service that meets these and other objectives, and will continue to offer programmes of the kind your letter describes.

I note that you are particularly concerned over the strengthening of our multimedia offer, in relation to our plans for radio. As you will know, the World Service aims to reach people on platforms appropriate to their needs. Radio of course remains important, and in recognition of this the Russian Service will retain 58 hours a week of radio programming - the second highest amount of all language services.   However I hope you will appreciate why, in a media environment in which short wave listening overall is in decline, and in which the internet and other platforms (such as mobile delivery) are growing rapidly, the World Service must position itself for the future.

I am told that independent research predicts that Russia will be the second largest internet market in Europe and the fifth largest in the world by the end of this year. Broadband penetration is expected to increase dramatically over the next five years and, by 2012, 21.2 million households in Russia are expected to have access. I appreciate that you do not agree with these plans but it is inarguably the case that for many people, listening online will indeed offer an alternative to radio. I am assured that the World Service will however continue to try to improve radio delivery where it can.

Your letter refers to attempts to establish an FM prsence in Russian as "disastrous." You will appreciate that this is not a view which is shared by my colleagues in the World Service. Given that most people in Russia would prefer to listen via better-quality FM they felt that they owed it to their listeners to seek to go down this route. They are of course disappointed that they have been unable to maintain FM partnerships. You link this question to the BBC's editorial independence, and I would stress that at no time has the BBC compromised that fundamental principle. Nor would it do so in the future. Indeed, and as you will be aware, it was the BBC's robust, independent news programmes to which the authorities appeared to take exception when they were transmitted on partner FM stations.

I appreciate that you believe that the most effective means of reaching our audiences would be further research into means of strengthening radio relays, and I can confirm that World Service does continue to consider all options for distribution within the frameworks of editorial independence and the need to provide value for money. However, I am sure you will understand why we have to be realistic about the difficulties and sensitivities of acquiring transmission facilities in countries adjacent to Russia. The authorities will not award such licences to the BBC as their spectrum is targeted for their own use. DRM has so far obtained a very limited take-up in Russia, or indeed anywhere.

Your letter expresses your fear that moving language services closer to their audiences puts BBC journalists at risk, in particular to intimidation and other forms of pressure. I can assure you that this is a matter that the BBC takes extremely seriously. The safety of our staff is of the utmost importance to us.

As you know, the BBC Russian Service has been operating in Moscow since the early 1990s and if at any point its staff should feel themselves to be at risk, immediate action would be taken. The World Service feels that once the changes have been made, the balance between staff in Moscow and London will be the right one. Nigel has stressed that financial imperatives were not the drivers for the changes. Like parts of the World Service (and many other publicly-funded bodies) the Russian Service has had to make efficiency savings. However the motivating forces for change were in fact the need to strengthen the BBC's position in a highly competitive market, through maximising its presence on all platforms, and to continue to provide high-quality programming at key times of day.

I am sorry that you are not happy with these plans, and I appreciate that you are motivated out of concern for the quality and effectiveness of our output. I recognise too that many people have strong personal loyalty to the BBC, and to the Russian Service, and we are very proud of that unique relationship. I understand why, therefore, against that background, and the importance of the service to so many, change may not be particularly welcome. I can assure you however that these changes were made only after considerable thought and discussion. My colleagues in the World Service are confident that if you listen to the new output, you will be reassured that it will continue to cover areas about which you have concerns and will be marked by the same high standards that have always distinguished the output of the Russian Service.

Lastly, I would urge you again to take up Nigel Chapman's offer of a briefing - Nigel is obviously in a position to go into much more detail.

I would be grateful if you could share this letter with the other signatories to your own.

15 January Letter from Richard Hainsworth, President of Russia's Chartered Financial Analysts, to BBC Director General Mark Thompson:

Dear Mr. Thompson,

In response to points made in a letter you wrote to Mr. Chandler, who kindly shared its contents with me, I would respond as follows.

My concern is this: at a time when the BBC's historic role - giving wide coverage to uncomfortable truths - is again badly needed, its voice is being muted. Explanations grounded in a welter of technical and financial issues lead to the unfortunate perception that the BBC's leadership is weak and caving in to political pressure. Either that, or the British state is no longer willing to fund the BBC to perform its historic role.

Both of these perceptions - however false you may consider them to be - will increase the current Russian leadership's propensity to add pressure on any British interest here in order to stifle those views it dislikes. It is not in Britain's best interests for its citizens or diplomats to be subject to unwonted pressure, or to be perceived to be weak and so susceptible to pressure.

It is especially distressing to see a decline in balanced BBC coverage of controversial topics when the tabloid British media takes a stridently irrational and anti-Russian stance. The tabloid media, for all its bad points, cannot be silenced. Yet, if the BBC is silenced, ordinary Russians will only see a "British" point of view that can be easily refuted. And that is to the advantage of those who wish to bend opinion in the way they perceive to be "correct".

The BBC should not allow even the perception of being silenced, its editorial content removed, or the scope of its transmissions decreased.

In defending some of its policy decisions, technical issues have been raised, such as a statistical decline in the use of short-wave, forecast increases in internet usage, and the relative merits of FM radio. The contradictions inherent in the arguments provided in your letter indicate that indeed the British state no longer wishes to fund the BBC to maintain its historic role. If the funding were present, then any new channel of communication (such as the internet) would be built up via investment. If an old channel (such as short-wave) was no longer reaching an important audience, it should be wound down because it does not serve a need. To present an investment in the new as justifying a cut in spending in the old demonstrates that funding not mission is highest in the minds of the BBC's leadership.

Mr. Thompson, in your letter you discuss both the advantages of FM over short-wave, but also the problems being faced in getting FM redistribution. Taken together, namely, a policy to move from short-wave to FM, and the inability to make FM transmissions, it would appear that the BBC's radio transmissions have declined absolutely, even though this may not have been the policy intent. The perception is thereby fostered that the BBC is in retreat.

Regarding marketing research that the internet will be an increasingly important communications channel in the medium-term, several responses spring to mind. First, marketing research almost by definition tends to be over-optimistic. It is also a prediction of what may be, not an assessment of what is. My 26 years of living in Russia has amply demonstrated to me that very rarely do predictions come true, whether in the predicted time-frame, or at the volume forecast. I trust that the BBC will not fall prey to a modern-day version of Churchill's taunt: using market research as a drunk uses a lamp post - for support rather than illumination.

Secondly, the internet is a young technology. We do not yet know its limitations or controllability. Is the BBC aware that both the Estonian and the Georgian governments believe that the Russian state has deployed internet software to attack their networks? The Russian state has, moreover, instituted a wide-ranging set of laws and instructions covering the internet. In China, there are very significant controls over the internet - as reporters covering the Olympics discovered. Russian computer scientists are amongst the best in the world; indeed the BBC's 'click online' used an entire programme to consider the effect of Russian hackers on the internet. What about the ordinary person's desire to use the internet to obtain information frowned on by the State when every IP number and message packet can be traced? There is nothing like a passive receiver picking up invisible waves to engender confidence that the act of listening cannot be traced.

It would seem unwise to put too heavy a reliance on the internet given these risks.

Finally, there is the repeated mantra about the BBC in a competitive global market. If the world were comprised solely of nations and states that universally upheld the freedom of the press, the mantra would sustain belief. Yet in such a situation no government should be funding or running a major broadcasting network!

Yet freedom of speech, truth, balance, reliable information are simply not products universally available today. The BBC's World Service does not exist in a competitive global market. As a beacon of truth and balanced opinion it would be unique, and demonstrate that the values of truthfulness and trustworthiness can be associated with Britain, thus enhancing its interests in the world. It behoves the British government to fund the BBC's World Service adequately, and the BBC's leadership to aspire to a moral mission that transcends financial constraints. The peoples of the world will thank them if they do.

(Richard Hainsworth, a financial analyst, has lived in Moscow since 1982.  In 2001 he founded Global Rating International.  RusRating was set up later the same year. He is President of the CFA (Chartered Financial Analysts) in Russia.   A leading expert in the field, he writes and lectures on the banking sector in Russia.)




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