Democracy & Media: The BBC World Service

By Roman Bharati

As we celebrate World Languages Week, it is important to discuss the significance of the centenary of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) which was recognized this past October. The corporation has a well-known reputation for providing accurate, reliable, and impartial news and information to the people of the United Kingdom and around the world. However, what many may not know is that the BBC has also been a pioneer in promoting news and information in different languages. The BBC first started international broadcasting in the 1930s with the launch of the Empire Service, later renamed the Overseas Service and then the World Service. The Empire Service was initially intended to provide news and information to the British Empire and Commonwealth countries, but soon expanded to other countries as well. 

Now, needless to say, these broadcasts were diffused in a very different world. In 1938, the service started broadcasting in Arabic as part of its efforts to counter Nazi propaganda in the Middle East and North Africa before and during World War II. During this time, General Charles de Gaulle, leader of the Free French forces, used the BBC to broadcast messages of resistance and encouragement to the French people. De Gaulle’s speeches were broadcasted via the BBC’s French language service, which was set up specifically to reach occupied France. But, as critical thinkers (which I know you all are!), you might be thinking that the BBC was also used to promote British national interests, yet, much evidence points away from this conclusion. 

During WW2, Winston Churchill was in fact furious about the coverage of the conflict – the BBC sought to broadcast only verified information, even if negative. In 1982, Margaret Thatcher hated the BBC’s treatment of the Falklands War. According to Robert Seatter, head of BBC History, Thatcher always wanted them to say “our boys” instead of “British troops” but this never happened. Even more recently, in 2003, the BBC was involved in a tense scandal concerning Tony Blair, then prime minister of the UK, and Britain’s involvement in the War in Iraq. My point is simple; the BBC has been consistently committed to promulgating universal democratic values, which in turn, has made the organization’s reputation very trusted. 

The BBC’s commitment to multiculturalism serves as a shining example of how the power of language can bring people together and make the world a better place. It highlights the importance of providing a voice for all communities and the role media plays in shaping our perceptions of the world around us. Seeking out these diverse views renders us more perspicacious and is crucial in creating a more inclusive and interconnected society. 

There is a lesson to find in this story – perhaps it is that belief in universal democratic values, essentially, our belief in liberal democracy, can serve as a unifying factor – one that transcends the cultural, societal, and even geographic borders we may face. Claire Enders, founder of one of the leading British independent research companies, while discussing the centenary of the BBC, pointed out a rather jarring fact – at least to me. She stated that approximately 75% of people around the world do not have access to what we see as the free press. Often our access to such information can be taken for granted. So, as you embark on your journey as global citizens, remember the power of language and try to use it for good.