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Now, the real news

Through 15 years of house arrest, Aung San Suu Kyi kept her sanity listening to the BBC. She made it her alternative world. Karan Thapar writes.

columns Updated: Aug 18, 2012 21:58 IST

How many of you listen to the radio? Very few, I expect. I’m not sure what the FM figures are but the station names suggest the programming is for teenagers. Adult audiences don’t seem to be catered for.

In our age of television, radio has been diminished. That’s probably true the world over with the exception, perhaps, of Britain’s Today programme. Yet there remains one radio station that has never been surpassed and, I’m sure, never will be: BBC World Service.

Through her 15 years of house arrest, Aung San Suu Kyi kept her sanity listening to the BBC. She made it her alternative world. “The BBC has been with me throughout these years. You don’t know what the BBC World Service meant to me,” she said on her release. “It kept me in touch with the rest of the world. It allowed me to keep up with developments in the outside world although I was not able to contact anybody. It was a one-way service and for that I am very grateful. I had nothing to give in return but all the time the BBC was giving me something every day.”

Which leads me to ask what makes the BBC World Service so special? First, I would say, is its reliability. People trust it. I can recall evenings in the 60s and 70s when, after hearing All India Radio, Daddy would switch to the BBC with the words “Now let’s hear the real news!” And that remained the case till the advent of independent TV news.

Perhaps the greatest compliment came from Rajiv Gandhi. On October 31, 1984, despite the best efforts of the Indian State, he only believed his mother was dead when he heard it on the BBC. AIR and Doordarshan had nothing to report for almost 12 hours!

Second, the BBC taps a vast variety of sources and has an envious network of local correspondents. In 1981, when the Nigerian foreign ministry caught fire sometime after midnight, turning into an veritable ‘towering inferno’, I happened to be the only foreign journalist in the vicinity. My hurried story for The Times (London) was instantly picked up by the BBC World Service programme ‘News of the African World’. And that, believe it or not, is how President Shehu Shagari found out about the fate of his ministry!

Third is the range of programmes the BBC offers. There are appetising book readings, enticing discussions, captivating eye-witness accounts alongside informed studies of composers (both classical and pop), debates about fashion, interviews with authors, athletes and apparatchiks and sparkling chats with celebrities, both credible and strange. The news is only part of it.

In 1987, an interview I did with Shimon Peres, then Israel’s foreign minister, was suddenly postponed by an hour because his staff did not realise it clashed with his favourite BBC programme “Desert Island Discs’. At the time I was irritated but now I can concede he sensibly gave a riveting BBC programme priority over a routine interview.

George Alagiah, the BBC anchor, says interviews he’s done with African presidents were often interrupted half-way because they wanted to catch the latest BBC news. And who can deny that’s an amazing way of paying a compliment!

No doubt there are other reasons too. Together they account for the phenomenal loyalty of the World Services’ audience. One hundred and forty five million tune in everyday, 15 million in India alone. And I can safely add none of us is likely to be lured away.

The views expressed by the author are personal

First Published: Aug 11, 2012 21:21 IST