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BBC Russia Service: A Resigning Matter

Editors of OpenDemocracy Russia
27 November 2008

On 25 November the Director of the BBC World Service Nigel Chapman submitted his resignation. Discussion has raged during recent weeks over changes proposed by the World Service to the programmes broadcast by the Russian Service.  These changes apparently motivated by a desire to update the format of the programmes, dispensing with features and concentrating on providing more news via the internet. 

Arguments against these changes have been advanced by Robert Chandler, Professor Donald Rayfield and John Dunn, to name but a few of the 100+ Russian specialists and Russophiles who have protested.  Only about 20% of the Russian population has access to the internet, and for many only at work, they point out. So who is it that the BBC is actually broadcasting for? 

The answer of the paymaster, the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office, might well be that their target audience is not grannies in Omsk, but the decision-makers of the future.  The latter do probably in most cases have internet access.  But if FM broadcasting has been seen to be so vulnerable to the whims of the Kremlin (Russian re-broadcasters withdrew cooperation following the Litvinenko affair), then is a website not also likely to be vulnerable?

In a letter to The Times of 15 November Irina Shumovich, who worked for the Russian Service from 1989-2001, expressed her doubts about the impartiality and integrity of some of the journalists  who have come from Russia to work there during the last 15 years. She suggested that ‘dedicated presenters were chosen not for their charisma and integrity, but for their dedication to the management.'  The only section, she says, that still produced programmes of intellectual distinction and outstanding cultural depth was the Features Department.

Nigel Chapman, the Director who has just resigned, is regarded by Britain's Russophile community as having shown a poor grasp of Russia and its current situation. As Robert Chandler has written: ‘We hope that the BBC governors will appoint...someone who respects the intelligence of listeners and who does not seek merely to pander to the Russian or any other authorities.' 

Letter to the Times from Irina Shumovitch 15 November 2008

Sir,  I worked for the BBC Russian Service from 1989 to 2001, and witnessed the beginning of its decline (letters, Nov 10 & 14). When I joined the service in 1989, it had a vibrant, if somewhat eccentric, atmosphere of creativity. Intellectual debate was an integral part of programme making, originality was encouraged and each member of the service took pride in his work.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, John Tusa, then the director of the World Service, lifted the ban on the recruitment of journalists who had been employed by the media in their countries. For the Russian Service it meant recruitment of the people who, before the collapse of the Soviet regime, had worked for the Soviet propaganda machine. They had excellent radio skills, good English but no idea about balanced reporting and treating people with trust and respect. Many of them have gradually taken editorial positions in the Russian Service and started, in a very subtle way, bending BBC editorial guidelines to suit their political views.

With the new style of editorial leadership, the broadcasts of the Russian Service became more and more bland. "Dedicated" presenters were chosen not for their charisma and integrity but for their dedication to the management.

By the time I resigned in 2001, creativity in the Russian Service was stifled, individualism frowned upon and an atmosphere of fear and cynicism dominated. The only section of the Russian Service still producing programmes of intellectual distinction and outstanding cultural depth was the features department.

It is hardly surprising to me that, when economic necessity dictated, the editors of the Russian Service decided to close the features section, the last centre of excellence and free-thinking. What I find astounding is that Nigel Chapman allowed them to take advantage of his ignorance.

Irina Shumovitch, Producer, Russian Service, 1989-2001, London N5

Letter from Robert Chandler 19 November 2008

Sir,

Roland Oliphant ("The BBC at Dusk", JRL, 211) quotes Sarah Gibson (the head of the BBC Russian Service) at great length but appears unaware of the arguments made by myself and others in four letters published recently by the Times and also in postings on the websites of "Open Democracy" and "Index on Censorship".

Our central point, not discussed by Oliphant, is that the Russian Service cannot speak with an independent voice if it makes itself dependent on the Russian authorities. During 2003-2007 the Russian service invested heavily in FM, thus making itself totally dependent on the co-operation of Russian rebroadcasters. Predictably enough, Russian rebroadcasters withdrew their co-operation as soon as conflicts between Russia and Britain (e.g. the Litvinenko affair) arose.

Having learned nothing from this disaster, the BBC is now investing heavily in something no less vulnerable: a website. If another serious conflict arises, I have no doubt that access to this will be blocked. Once again it will become apparent that the BBC has played into the hands of the Russian authorities. Instead of putting all their eggs in one basket, the BBC should explore as great a variety of options as possible: e.g. broadcasting from neighbouring countries or from satellites. Or might it be possible to use digital short waves?

Another problem with the Russian service's new strategy is that "the Internet, with audio stream, podcasts, video and multiplatform content"(Sarah Gibson's own words ­ she takes pride in being up-to-date with her vocabulary and her technology) is not available to as many Russians as Sarah Gibson seems to imagine. Even in Moscow and Petersburg I myself know very few people with access to broadband. Gibson gives the impression of complete ignorance of the reality of most Russians' lives. I would like to know what proportion of visitors to the Russian service website live in Russia and what proportion live abroad. Is the BBC committed enough to freedom of information to disclose these figures?

There is no justification for existence of the BBC Russian Service unless it provides something different from any other broadcaster or website. And there are, at present, some good Russian-language online news services. The Russian service should be proud, rather than ashamed, of what has made it unique. This, above all, means serious pre-recorded features incorporating a variety of voices and viewpoints.

If Oliphant had taken the trouble to give any serious attention to Russian service programming, he would have realized that the management has indeed been growing more and more terrified of offending the Kremlin. A year or so ago, the Russian service cancelled a scheduled repeat of a Litvinenko feature and removed it from their web site within less than 24 hours, instead of leaving it there, as normal, for a week. I managed to listen to this programme before it was removed from the site. Around the same time I also watched a BBC Panorama documentary. The Russian service programme, repeatedly branded "unbalanced" by the World Service management, was a great deal milder in its criticisms of the Kremlin than the English-language Panorama documentary.

The Russian service management also declined a suggestion from one of Politkovskaya's translators, Arch Tait, that they publish Politkovskaya's PUTIN'S RUSSIA on their website. This would have been an important scoop for the Russian Service; the original text was in the possession of the translator and no one in Russia knew it. Nevertheless, even though the declared purpose of the Russian service website was to publish material that could not easily be published within Russia, they refused it.

The BBC has not, as Oliphant suggests, been measured in its response to our criticisms. Far from it ­ the Director of the World Service, having happened across a draft of our initial letter to the Times, phoned me up and spent 20 minutes trying anxiously to persuade me of the importance of "the strategic realignment" of the Russian service that was being carried out. I believe that he also phoned the Times itself more than once. His aim was to stifle any debate before it had even started. He does not want the Russian Service to be a vehicle for serious debate, nor does he wish it to be the subject of debate.

Oliphant's article, incidentally, was first published by ‘Russia Profile'. Nikolay Zlobin, a member of the board of ‘Russia Profile' has stated publicly that he is confident that ‘ "Russia Profile" will help people in the States to understand the point of view of Russia [my italics ­ R.C.] with regard to those questions where there are still disagreements between Moscow and Washington.' It is perhaps not surprising that promoters of ‘the point of view of Russia' should welcome the plans of the BBC management to dumb down the Russian service.

Letter from Robert Chandler 26 November 2008

Sir,

On November 25 Nigel Chapman announced that he is to resign from the World Service.

We are very grateful to the 100+ leading writers, historians, social scientists, translators and journalists who have both publicly and privately supported our campaign against the destruction of the most valuable parts of the Russian service.  We hope that the BBC governors will appoint, as the new Director of the World Service, someone who respects the intelligence of listeners and who does not seek merely to pander to the Russian or any other authorities.

In his letter of Nov 12 Nigel Chapman revealed an abyss of incomprehension of the present state of Russia so startling that I have been shamefully slow to notice it.   He wrote that  ‘the inaccuracies and assertions from Robert Chandler about the BBC  World Service (letter, Nov12 

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/letters/article5132737.ece)

[...] imply we are prepared to compromise our independence, and our editorial standards, to attract audiences.'

What I actually said was the opposite of this. I suggested that the Russian service has compromised its independence not in order to please its audience, but in order to please the Russian authorities. Winning the respect of listeners and placating the authorities are very different things.  These two goals are in fact incompatible, and this is the real problem faced by the Russian service.  There is no easy solution, but Nigel Chapman has appeared resolutely unaware that the problem even exists. We hope that during the remaining months of his stewardship he will start to listen to the voices of people who know more about Russia than he does. It must surely mean something that almost ALL the leading historians of twentieth-century Russia (and there were several I did not have time to contact) signed the 7 Nov letter to the Times.

Yours Sincerely,

Robert Chandler

(translator of Russian literature)
Donald Rayfield (Emeritus Professor of Russian and Georgian, Queen Mary, University of London)
Irina Shumovich (former Russian service journalist)

 

 

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