The Foreign Office must realise that cuts at the BBC Russian Service have turned it into an arm of the Kremlin propaganda machine
Imagine that you are a Radio 4 listener and suddenly all the documentaries and features are replaced by 5Live-style chats. This is how Russian listeners must now feel.
Features—a specifically BBC tradition of serious pre-recorded discussions of cultural and political matters—were the most valuable part of the BBC Russian Service. Now they are a thing of the past. Since 13 March, the Russian Service has cut its broadcasts from 76 to 58 hours a week in order to expand an internet site that can easily be blocked by the government and is in any case inaccessible to much of its audience.
A protest letter, signed by more than 60 eminent writers, academics, journalists and diplomats, was published in The Times. In their replies to this and subsequent letters, the World Service bosses repeatedly exposed their own ignorance and confusion. We live in a world where managers are expected to know about “management” and ignorance of what it is they are managing is considered the norm. Nigel Chapman, the outgoing director of the World Service, was evidently not interested in the opinions of such distinguished academics as Orlando Figes, Donald Rayfield or Geoffrey Hosking (a former Reith lecturer). What historical knowledge could be relevant to the “strategic realignment” he had determined upon?
Another reason is the complacency that set in, throughout all Western institutions, after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In the early 1990s, the BBC decided to abandon security clearance for Russian Service employees and to recruit from Russia only experienced journalists with fluent English. Critics pointed out that all Soviet journalists with fluent English would, inevitably, have had at least some dealings with the KGB, but their concerns were ridiculed. Russia was “on the path to democracy”, and a concern with security issues was seen as both bad taste and old hat.
In a Westminster Hall Private Members’ Debate last December, the Conservative MP Dr Julian Lewis said of the Russian Service: “We have crossed the line when the editorial policy of a service that broadcasts to a foreign country is shaped by former senior officials in the propaganda network of that country…I have been informed that a former deputy editor of Izvestia who was a special Tass correspondent in Iraq, and that a former senior functionary at Radio Kiev—an English-language Soviet propaganda station in the Cold War—are deeply involved in advising senior people in the Russian Service and the World Service on editorial policy…Clearly, the Service has lost its way.”
The fall of the Soviet Union allowed people to believe that liberal values and democracy had triumphed once and for all. People forgot that maintaining the integrity of any institution—whether a bank or a broadcasting service—is a never-ending battle. The castration of the Russian Service serves the interests both of the Kremlin and of British managers who like to avoid controversy. We can only hope that, in time, the Foreign Office will realise what has been lost.