Saved by the BBC

‘Why do you need radio when there’s Internet?’ asked the bemused young woman at the British Council.

BBC classic image 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
BBC classic image 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
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.
From the 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 news sources.
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.”
In my 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 day.
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.
And it’s 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 attached.
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.