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#20 - JRL 2008-213 - JRL Home
Date: Wed, 19 Nov 2008
Subject: Cuts to BBC Russian Service
From: Robert Chandler <kcf19@dial.pipex.com>

Roland Oliphant (“The BBC at Dusk”, JRL, 211) quotes Sarah Gibson (the head of the BBC Russian Service) at great length but appears unaware of the arguments made by myself and others in four letters published recently by the Times and also in postings on the websites of “Open Democracy” and “Index on Censorship”.

Our central point, not discussed by Oliphant, is that the Russian Service cannot speak with an independent voice if it makes itself dependent on the Russian authorities. During 2003-2007 the Russian service invested heavily in FM, thus making itself totally dependent on the co-operation of Russian rebroadcasters. Predictably enough, Russian rebroadcasters withdrew their co-operation as soon as conflicts between Russia and Britain (e.g. the Litvinenko affair) arose.

Having learned nothing from this disaster, the BBC is now investing heavily in something no less vulnerable: a website. If another serious conflict arises, I have no doubt that access to this will be blocked. Once again it will become apparent that the BBC has played into the hands of the Russian authorities. Instead of putting all their eggs in one basket, the BBC should explore as great a variety of options as possible: e.g. broadcasting from neighbouring countries or from satellites. Or might it be possible to use digital short waves?

Another problem with the Russian service’s new strategy is that “the Internet, with audio stream, podcasts, video and multiplatform content”(Sarah Gibson’s own words ­ she takes pride in being up-to-date with her vocabulary and her technology) is not available to as many Russians as Sarah Gibson seems to imagine. Even in Moscow and Petersburg I myself know very few people with access to broadband. Gibson gives the impression of complete ignorance of the reality of most Russians’ lives. I would like to know what proportion of visitors to the Russian service website live in Russia and what proportion live abroad. Is the BBC committed enough to freedom of information to disclose these figures?

There is no justification for existence of the BBC Russian Service unless it provides something different from any other broadcaster or website. And there are, at present, some good Russian-language online news services. The Russian service should be proud, rather than ashamed, of what has made it unique. This, above all, means serious pre-recorded features incorporating a variety of voices and viewpoints.

If Oliphant had taken the trouble to give any serious attention to Russian service programming, he would have realized that the management has indeed been growing more and more terrified of offending the Kremlin. A year or so ago, the Russian service cancelled a scheduled repeat of a Litvinenko feature and removed it from their web site within less than 24 hours, instead of leaving it there, as normal, for a week. I managed to listen to this programme before it was removed from the site. Around the same time I also watched a BBC Panorama documentary. The Russian service programme, repeatedly branded “unbalanced” by the World Service management, was a great deal milder in its criticisms of the Kremlin than the English-language Panorama documentary.

The Russian service management also declined a suggestion from one of Politkovskaya’s translators, Arch Tait, that they publish Politkovskaya’s PUTIN’S RUSSIA on their website. This would have been an important scoop for the Russian Service; the original text was in the possession of the translator and no one in Russia knew it. Nevertheless, even though the declared purpose of the Russian service website was to publish material that could not easily be published within Russia, they refused it.

The BBC has not, as Oliphant suggests, been measured in its response to our criticisms. Far from it ­ the Director of the World Service, having happened across a draft of our initial letter to the Times, phoned me up and spent 20 minutes trying anxiously to persuade me of the importance of “the strategic realignment” of the Russian service that was being carried out. I believe that he also phoned the Times itself more than once. His aim was to stifle any debate before it had even started. He does not want the Russian Service to be a vehicle for serious debate, nor does he wish it to be the subject of debate.

Oliphant’s article, incidentally, was first published by ‘Russia Profile’. Nikolay Zlobin, a member of the board of ‘Russia Profile’ has stated publicly that he is confident that ‘ “Russia Profile” will help people in the States to understand the point of view of Russia [my italics ­ R.C.] with regard to those questions where there are still disagreements between Moscow and Washington.’ It is perhaps not surprising that promoters of ‘the point of view of Russia’ should welcome the plans of the BBC management to dumb down the Russian service.