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Sharing Discussing Understanding

Commonwealth Journalists' Association

By Will Henley

A leading author and historian on South Asia mounted an impassioned defence of the BBC Hindi language service at a CJA-UK event on 14 February 2011.

At the launch of his latest book, India: A Portrait, Patrick French called on BBC chiefs to reverse a decision to ditch short wave broadcasts of the Indian language service, which he said amounted to its “effective silencing”.

“For a saving of a mere £600,000 a year, 10 million people will be cut off from an essential source of unbiased, accurate news and the UK will irreversibly damage its most successful brand presence in India,” French said at the launch at the Palace of Westminster.

As a panel of speakers – including Pakistani writer Ziauddin Sardar and Labour peer Lord Desai – reflected on the social and political change in India described in French’s book, the author himself pressed the case for the Hindi service.

Audience member and former UK Foreign Office minister Lord Frank Judd backed French’s stance, saying that the cutbacks – caused by the ending of a Foreign and Commonwealth Office grant to the BBC – were “tragic.” Judd claimed the BBC had become “totally obsessed with viewing audience numbers” and should instead worry about “quality” and targeting audiences in need.

Under the BBC World Service cuts, confirmed earlier this month, five language services will be closed – including Russian, Macedonian, Albanian and Serbian services, as well as English for the Caribbean and Portuguese for Africa – and some 650 jobs will be lost.

From March 2011, the World Service is to cease all short wave distribution of radio content in Hindi, as well as Indonesian, Kyrgyz, Nepali, Swahili services and a Great Lakes service for Rwanda and Burundi. While the services will remain available in FM radio, online and mobile, many remote communities with access only to short wave radio will now be unable to access the decades-old services.

As French insisted, he was not a “nostalgic person. He said that short wave transmissions remained invaluable as they could be received by battery operated receivers and are “available in places without electricity or during power cuts”.

“BBC Hindi transmissions are an essential source of learning for school children and college students in rural India preparing for competitive exams and cannot be silenced,” he said.
Panel members included Andrew Whitehead, head of news and current affairs at the BBC World Service, and CJA-UK chair Rita Payne who moderated the discussion.

Subjects discussed included the stand-off with Pakistan over Kashmir, India’s rise as a global power, poverty and the emergence of a new generation of entrepreneurs, and controversy over continuing UK aid funding to the country.

Sardar highlighted fears over the future of the BBC’s Urdu language service, while Lord Desai suggested that no Indian government would be able to compromise over Kashmir.

Whitehead meanwhile reflected on the “sachet revolution” wherein millions of poor people could now enjoy luxury items, such as soaps and shower gels, previously only accessible to the middle classes.
He added: “I would like to say a very big thank you to all our friends in public life who have taken up the cause of the World Service in English and all its languages.”

According to the BBC announcement, by March 2014, BBC World Service short wave broadcasts in other languages will end. Broadcasts of the English service could also be reduced to two hours per day in Africa and Asia.

Further reading:
Hasan Suroor: Are British journalists ‘romanticisng’ India? Click here
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