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Trusted World Service

Thursday, December 19th 2002 - 20:00 UTC
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The BBC World Service, claims with some justification, to be the world's best-known, most trusted voice in international broadcasting, delivering a lively mix of news, analysis and features 24 hours a day to about 150-million listeners worldwide, in English and more than forty other languages.

Marking its 70th anniversary (on December 19th) , the Director of BBC World Service and Global News, Mark Byford says: "As we celebrate 70 years of international broadcasting, our reputation for authoritative broadcasting based on trust, integrity and freedom is giving the world service an impact and importance that has real benefits for Britain and the world".

The first broadcast of the original Empire Service was transmitted in English from a hut in Daventry with only a few staff. Seventy years later, the World Service broadcasts 67,000 hours of programming from its London headquarters at Bush House in the Strand, with several thousand staff, including the world's largest team of reporters ? 250 correspondents reporting from 50 bureaux.

Having used short-wave for much of its early history, it now embraces new satellite technology to beam its signals to a network of 2,000 partner stations, enabling 135 capital cities to listen in high quality FM. It also exploits the world-wide web, with comprehensive on-line services in all 43 languages.

Mr Byford is confident it will meet what he calls the ferocious challenges of competition and technological developments, to maintain its reputation.

Falklands Broadcasting Challenge

The 1982 Falklands War presented the BBC with one of its sternest challenges in recent years. The World Service swiftly expanded its broadcasting both on "Calling the Falklands" and in its Spanish and Portuguese services beamed to Latin America.

To counter attempts by the Argentine military government to jam BBC broadcasts, the BBC increased its short-wave transmissions from six to ten. Though the Argentine military confiscated the Falkland Islanders radios, they managed to hide some sets under the floorboards and continued to listen throughout the conflict. Islanders tuned in despite threats that they would be punished. One islander was badly beaten for listening to the BBC.

This had echoes of the 1939-1945 war when people in Nazi-occupied Europe risked death at the hands of the Gestapo when they tuned in to the BBC with its famous signature tune, and its v-for victory morse-code signal, and the BBC sent secret messages in code to the underground resistance in France and other countries.

Forty years later, Falkland Islanders very much appreciated what they called their "lifeline", which broadcast thousands of messages of support, boosting their morale ? from friends and relatives and also the Governor, Rex Hunt, Government Ministers, and even the Queen.

Combating Argentine Propaganda

While the Argentine media pumped out endless, inaccurate propaganda about the course of the conflict, many of the estimated 250 thousand pre-war listeners in Argentina in Spanish and another 100,000 in English, continued to listen to BBC World Service broadcasts, direct, and relayed by other Latin American radio stations including Radio Carve in Montevideo and Radio Mineria in Santiago.

Even one of Argentina's biggest radio stations, Radio Rivadavia, defied General Galtieri's orders and contacted the BBC Spanish service for information. A cartoon in the Argentine newspaper La Prensa depicted two Argentine characters, one of whom asks the other: "Psst! Que dice la BBC?" ? "What is the BBC saying?"

In Buenos Aires, the military government's senior spokesman, a Naval Captain, who daily briefed several hundred international journalists on Argentina's version of events, always afterwards asked to join the BBC World Service Correspondent to listen to the World Service news to find out what was really happening ? and also to share his Scotch Whisky, in short supply because exports were halted when diplomatic relations were severed!

The BBC dissociated itself from, and refused to have any dealings with, the UK Ministry of Defence propaganda programme "Radio Atlantico del Sur", which requisitioned one of the BBC's Ascension Island Transmitters. It was aimed principally at the 8,000 troops on the Falklands, but was considered ineffective ? and ridiculed by the UK media. The Times newspaper remarked: "If the British artillery does not blast the Argentines out of Port Stanley, or the RAF's leaflets cow them into surrender, it is just possible that the Argentine troops may still give up just to get away from Radio Atlantico del Sur".

World Service reputation enhanced

While some of the BBC's reporting came in for some criticism from the Government and others, the World Service emerged with its reputation enhanced for truth and balance. A huge banner in the Falklands strung across Stanley's main road paid tribute to the BBC after the war, proclaiming: "God Bless You!"

The invasion forced the Foreign Office to put into rapid reverse the cuts imposed the previous year on the BBC's Latin American services as an economy measure, just as the Ministry of Defence relented their economy cuts on the Royal Navy.

Today, the Spanish and Portuguese services continue, as does "Calling the Falklands" twice weekly. The World Service in English, previously difficult to pick up on short-wave, can now be heard in good quality by thousands of listeners in Buenos Aires, 24 hours a day.

Biggest boost since World War Two

The Falklands war provided these services with their biggest boost since World War Two. It was also the first time that the Latin American services had been jammed since they first went on the air 44 years earlier.

The Spanish and Portuguese services to Latin America were only the second BBC foreign languages to be inaugurated after the BBC Arabic Services, both in 1938, to counter-act fascist propaganda. This was especially virulent and extensive in South America, where military dictatorships admired Hitler, Mussolini and Franco.

The British were late waking up to the threat, having disbanded their overseas information network after the 1914 -1918 war. The Soviet Union was the first country to broadcast to foreign countries in their own languages, in the 1920's, followed by Mussolini's Italy and Nazi Germany.

Winning over Latin American opinion

But the British soon caught up. The Government appointed a Latin American expert as its Controller of Overseas Publicity, Sir Kenneth Grubb, who had been a missionary in Brazil in the Amazon. He was particularly interested in encouraging the BBC's broadcasts, as Britain shouldered almost the entire burden of the fight against Nazi propaganda in Latin America until the United States entered the War after Pearl Harbour.

By the end of the war in 1945, Latin American public opinion was overwhelmingly in favour of the Allied cause, though many Argentines remained pro-Hitler.

The waters off South America were the stage for Britain's first and only significant victory in the early months of the war. In the Battle of the River Plate in December 1939, the formidable German battleship, Graf Von Spee, was fought to a standstill by three smaller British warships of the Falklands flotilla, Ajax. Achilles and Exeter forced into Montevideo and later scuttled within sight of the shore, in December 1939.

This victory, which did much to boost British morale, was covered blow by blow by the BBC. It repeatedly interrupted its normal programmes with news flashes to a nation transfixed as the drama unfolded. This heralded the BBC's outstanding coverage of six years of total war, from which it emerged with its reputation for truth, accuracy and integrity greatly enhanced a reputation the World Service continues to build upon to this day.

Harold Briley, (MP) London

Categories: Falkland Islands.

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