I have just heard about the cuts at the BBC World Service - 5 language services are being cut completely, along with 650 jobs. I heard this on my kitchen radio as I was having lunch today, listening to the wonderful World at One on BBC Radio 4 (formerly the 'Home Service' as opposed to services to the former 'Empire'). Tears sprang to my eyes involuntarily as they played the current World Service's resonant strap-line: 'you're with the BBC… in Beijing…Kinshasa…Rome…'. Memories of listening to this, as well as all the World Services' great programmes, and of course that irrepressible tune, Lilly Bolero, whilst staying in all sorts of isolated part of the world came back to me…
Although none of the language services that I hold particularly dear are being cut, I know that many around the world will shed a tear at these changes; notably listeners in Angola, Mozambique, the Balkans and the Caribbean. They say 30 million listeners will be lost as a result.
But how do you measure the real costs of this loss? It is not just numbers that count - though 30 million is, by any measure, a large figure. It is the other fuzzy, intangible stuff that a public broadcaster like the BBC World Service contributes to the quality of human existence that also matters. It is a loss of 'soft power', of influence, of respect… and of something Britain does particularly well. (I'm afraid we're getting quite good at cutting some of the very things we Brits do well - university education being another case in point, but that's another debate.)
You can't measure tears… Or can you? I recently heard an official from Radio France Internationale (RFI) talking about testing levels of audience recognition and recall in Kinshasa, D R Congo. He played this Kinshasa panel the RFI signature tune and reported that many of them - both men and women - had tears welling up in their eyes as they listened. Their explanation: it was so heartening for them to hear the RFI tune back on-air, it having been reinstated following a 10 month ban during most of 2010, at the hands of the Congolese Government.
If tears are not a measure of worth, what is? It would seem that the powers-that-be at RFI may take such emotion more seriously than those hard-hearted bureaucrats at our Foreign and Commonwealth Office who have forced these cuts at the BBC World Service.