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Russia Profile
November 17, 2008
The BBC at Dusk
Changes to the BBC’s Russian Language Service Say More About the Growth of RuNet Than the Censoring Power of the Kremlin

By Roland Oliphant

On Friday November 7 the Times newspaper published an open letter signed by 65 of Britain’s best known Russia watchers. The signatories were outraged by what they saw as ill-thought-out and unjustified cuts to the BBC World Service’s Russian service, which they described as “a perverse concession to those authorities in Russia who have been doing their best to curtail the activities of all British cultural institutions.”

Naturally, the BBC rejects the claims. It insists that it shares the experts’ concerns about the importance of its services, and that the changes are a sensible redirecting of resources to help the service reach a greater audience. The argument is simple and compelling: cuts to the radio service, which is losing listeners, are needed for greater investment in bbcrussian.com, which is posting impressive audience growth. And while there will be a net loss of 19 hours of broadcasts a week, analytical content will be extended and elements of cultural output will be incorporated into extended versions of peak time news and current affairs programs. Nonetheless, it is difficult not to understand the Russia experts’ suspicions about changes to a service that is and was not only a key tool of diplomacy, but came to play an iconic role in Russian life.

Starting in 1946, the cat-and-mouse game played across the airwaves between foreign broadcasters, Soviet jammers, and ordinary citizens trying to pick up the then-illegal broadcasts became a national pastime. It even gave rise to a popular saying: “There a tradition in Russia to listen to the BBC at night.”

The state has not jammed foreign broadcasts since the later 1980s, and the BBC ­ along with Radio Liberty (Radio Svoboda in Russian) and others - have been able to broadcast freely in Russia. But in recent years, the BBC’s audience has shrunk. The Russian stations that carried BBC’s content on high quality FM frequencies withdrew their services in 2007. It still transmits on medium waves in Moscow, St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg, but elsewhere in Russia it is confined to shortwave. As a result, its audience has contracted from 1.1 million three years ago to 730,000 today ­ of which only 680,000 listen in Russian.

The signatories of the letter in the Times ascribed this to the efforts of the Russian authorities to “curtail the activities of all British cultural institutions.” And they have a point ­ the BBC’s FM partners pulled out when relations between Britain and Russia soured in the wake of the Alexander Litvinenko affair (another institution they mention, the British Council, was forced to close its Yekaterinburg and St. Petersburg offices at around the same time). It is difficult to disagree with the signatories that “in Russia, misunderstanding and mistrust of Britain has reached a height unprecedented since the end of the Soviet Union,” or that the incidents are linked.

The BBC does not deny this, but it angrily (in as far as the BBC’s measured tones can be angry) rejects claims that it is reliant on the Russian authorities or makes “perverse concessions” to them. On the contrary, “the problems we have faced in acquiring carriage on FM in Russia emanated from the growing impact the distinctive programs were having with audiences,” wrote Nigel Chapman, the head of the World Service in a letter to the Times on Friday. It similarly dismisses the suggestion that the loss of listeners was in some way due to sacrificing quality in a misplaced attempt to make programs acceptable for broadcast on Russian FM stations. “The fact that when we disappeared from FM, the audience for those programs was growing, actually proves the opposite point,” said Sarah Gibson, the head of the Russian Service.

According to Gibson, the loss of listeners and the planned changes have been prompted not by conspiracy or malignant neglect of the BBC’s mandate, but by something far more banal: the audience preference. Shortwave, she said, is key to reaching audiences in such a vast country, but Russians are now less prepared to put up with poor reception and sound quality associated with such frequencies. “Russians expect nowadays a high standard of audibility, quality, production standards etc. that is associated with FM. We want to be able to bring our programs to the audience on FM, and we’ll keep trying. But we’ve come to the conclusion that the Internet, with audio stream, podcasts, video and multiplatform content, is the way we can bring the audience content of the quality and accessibility that they have shown they want,” she said.

That pattern is reflected across the former communist bloc. “Before 1989, listener numbers on shortwave varied, but they were generally higher,” said one former producer at the BBC’s now defunct Bulgarian language service. “But when we started using FM frequencies numbers shot up ­ to anywhere between six and 15 percent.”

Despite these gains the Bulgarian service, along with several other Central and Eastern European languages, was cut in 2005, prompting accusations of miserliness. Some blamed the rapidly expanding Arabic service, others­the large checks paid to celebrity presenters on its domestic services, like Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross. Neither criticism seems entirely fair in this case; the Russian Service says the changes are being carried out within its original budget and does not anticipate any cut “in this spending period,” and it remains the second largest of the 32 foreign language services after Arabic. The World Service, moreover, is funded by the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office and has a completely separate budget from the domestic service, funded by television license fees (from which Brand and Ross were until recently paid). The cuts to the East European services were motivated by changing priorities, but not necessarily spending priorities. “They were considered much more democratic than they used to be, and the BBC’s role in those countries was considered minimal,” said the former Bulgarian service producer. The relative size of the Russian and Arabic services says something about how the BBC views Russia.

Whatever the cause, the BBC argues, the fact of the matter is that it is losing radio listeners and gaining Web users, and that makes it sensible to concentrate on strengthening its Internet services. That shift in demand is important and points to a wider trend; the rise of the Internet, and of RuNet in particular.

Turi Munthe, founding CEO of the citizen journalist newswire demotix.com, sees the changes to the BBC less in the context of a fundamental shift in news and journalism wrought by the rise of the Internet. And while sharing reservations about any cuts in foreign language services, he acknowledges that the shift to Web-based platforms makes sense. The real question we should be asking is not about the platform the BBC chooses to reach its audience, but “whether they have the people on the ground to be generating interesting information,” he said.

The Internet has eaten into audiences for established news sources, and consequently affected advertising revenues. At the same time, as television channels and newspapers have been consolidated into major holdings like News International, media services have become less political beasts prepared to spend money to get their message across, and more business-orientated, with shareholders looking for ample profits. That has prompted a massive cull of expensive forms of reporting, especially foreign bureaus.

The result, says Munthe, is not only a shift to Internet-based delivery platforms, but increased repetition and an almost exclusive reliance on newswires like Reuters and the Associated Press. “One of the results of the shift to the Web is actually the shrinkage of information. When you cut correspondents you are cutting professionals, and invariably you replace them either with amateurs or with cut and paste.”

That is one thing the BBC is not doing. Indeed, according to Gibson one purpose of the changes is actually to increase reporting and research. The BBC, of course, is in many ways unique. It does not rely on advertising revenues and does not have to please shareholders looking for profits and savings, though it does have tax payers to think about (and often struggles to please them). Gibson is keen to emphasize that her service is not affected by that trend, and indeed bucks it. “We have done a range of special multimedia projects over the last year using both radio and Internet. They are two-week-long projects involving deep analysis and research: one on the army, another on gastarbeiters, and we’re about to do another on the economy.” Nor, she added, would there be any cuts to the staff in the Moscow office.

“We believe…that these changes will help BBC Russian become the most trusted and influential international news provider in Russia,” wrote Chapman in an open letter to members of the Great Britain-Russia Society. In that endeavor the shift to the Internet may be even more significant than elsewhere. The growth of RuNet and online debate on sites like LiveJournal.com has attracted the attention of media professionals the world over. Munthe, whose “citizen newswire” relies on ordinary people uploading images and articles, says he too will be following the move. “Russia is a place where the grasp of the Internet is growing rapidly and is extremely sophisticated. For a Web-based project like us it is incredibly exciting,” he said. Gibson agrees. “Russians are using the Internet to get information that they might not get from other places,” she said.

Only time will tell if the letter writers’ concerns are justified. But if Russia’s Internet can attract both an unorthodox start-up like Demotix, and a venerable institution like the BBC, it suggests that the tide of change is strong, but not necessarily malignant. “There is a balance to be had between bearing your past in mind and changing to reflect current realities. When people were listening to the BBC during the Cold War they were listening to all kinds of things on the BBC, including news and current affairs. I think the most important thing for Russian audiences is access to balanced, impartial news and current affairs. And in terms of changing of format, it does not seem to veer very much from what the BBC has always tried to do,” said Gibson.