Legend has it that prime minister Menachem Begin learned about the 1982 Sabra
and Shatilla massacre in Lebanon not from Israeli sources, but from the BBC. BBC
radio is also where Begin learned his English 40 years earlier.
end of apartheid to the Gulf War, from the tsunami in Thailand to the election
of the pope – the BBC has covered every major international news event with
sobriety, taste and depth.
Although its impartiality has met criticism in
some Israeli circles, no one disputes its premier status among international
I stumbled upon the BBC World Service radio 30 years ago
and have never moved the dial since. Having arrived to live in Israel shortly
before, I found myself in acute linguistic isolation. Suddenly, saved by the
BBC, I could flood my ears with the Queen’s English any time I chose. Sighing
with relief, I reminded myself: “There’ll always be an England.”
car, beside the shower, in the kitchen, not a day went by without it. My toddler
in her high chair swayed to the melody which announced the hourly news bulletin,
as familiar to her as any nursery rhyme. Jazz for the Asking, Witness, From Our
Own Correspondent, World Book Club, Hard Talk, Speaking of Faith, History of the
World in 100 Objects. Through the years the programs evolved, and if I wasn’t
always captivated by a discussion of rugby in Sri Lanka, chances are the next
show or the one after would grab me. The BBC was the gold standard of
journalism, the Renaissance man of radio.
The world may no longer have to
huddle around a clandestine radio within a blackened wartime room, but it’s
still a high to hear the announcer’s rousing “This is London” at the top of the
news. The BBC entered our cultural DNA.
And then, on April 1, the world
darkened for 1.5 million people who listened to BBC World Service on AM radio –
including all its listeners in Israel, who are beamed the 1323 AM broadcast from
Cyprus. Turning on 1323 AM I heard – nothing. Static. From room to room I ran,
switching on radio after radio.
But the unimaginable had happened: the
BBC had turned off the spigot. Instead of 20-plus hours a day of programming, I
found only a measly couple of hours in the doldrums of mid-morning and after the
dead of midnight.
I scrambled for an explanation, but the BBC site was
strangely tight-lipped. The British Embassy and the British Council in Israel
were likewise unable to elucidate.
My emailed inquiry to the World
Service in London bounced back a form email assuring that all letters are read,
even if not all are individually answered.
Finally, Jerusalem’s BBC
producer directed me to a low-key BBC press release announcing the cuts as part
of Britain’s “spending review.”
In the deafening silence I awaited the
uprising of the multitudes.
Cypriots, Egyptians, Jordanians, Israelis,
all joining hands to petition, to cajole, to beg. I waited in vain. In fact, I
was informed by the British press officer in Tel Aviv, his office had received
just three other inquiries.
But I know there’s a great silent majority. I
am discovering BBC junkies wherever I go – Americans, Canadians, Israelis. All
share my dismayed incredulity.
One outraged fan suggested it was a matter
for the Foreign Ministry.
On April 24 the BBC finally aired a small
segment attributing the cuts to budgetary issues. Citing “a lot of feedback in
the Eastern Mediterranean”, it apologized – but only for the lack of prior
notice. Interviewed live, a distraught listener in Jerusalem put reaction more
graphically when she wailed: “The BBC’s left me – what I am going to do?”
Restoring prior service was not mentioned.
“Why do you need radio when
there’s Internet?” asked the bemused young woman at the British Council. True,
BBC World Service radio is streamed live on the Internet 24 hours a
That’s great for everybody with a smartphone, or for everybody
sitting next to a computer with an Internet connection. But what about everyone
else? Radios may be passé for under- 30s, but not everywhere. Radio is
predominantly a socioeconomic device, not a generational one.
the persons with access to nothing more than a humble AM radio who are really
served by the gift the British people to the world, no strings
I counted on the BBC as if they owed it to us, as if there
would always be an England. But looks like the next Menachem Begin will have to
learn his English elsewhere.
The writer is an American-born writer and
lawyer living in Israel.