Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Posts Tagged ‘BBC World Service’

LibDems and the Creative Industries

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 16th September, 2018

Nik PowellThe LibDem Creative Network held an excellent event on the fringes of the Brighton autumn party conference last night, in an upstairs room at the Bar Broadway in Kemptown. There were two great speeches by producer Nik Powell, former Director of the National Film and Television School, and drummer Bob Henrit, who used to play with The Kinks. They both underlined what a disaster Brexit will be for the sector if it means a return to the bad old days of intrusive customs searches, carnets for instruments and other red tape. The creative industries contribute well over £70billion each year to the UK economy and the sector is growing faster than most others. But all that could be brought to a shuddering stop, before going into reverse, if there isn’t the free flow of actors, musicians and other artists between Britain and the Continent. No wonder there was such a sea of blue-and-yellow EU flags and 12-Star berets at the Last night of the Proms. To undermine the sector really would kill the goose that has been laying the golden eggs as well as enriching our cultural lives.

Bob KinksI reprised the theme in a speech I gave in the Britain and the World debate in the main auditorium at conference this afternoon, calling for the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) to be actively involved in Britain’s “soft power” through cultural diplomacy, and to report regularly to Parliament about the international aspects of our creative industries. It’s not just institutions such as the British Council and the BBC World Service that are important, but the hundreds of thousands of individual creators who make an enormous contribution. I recalled the wonderful spirit that there had been at the time of the London Olympics in 2012, while lamenting how that has evaporated in the two years since the EU Referendum. But as the clamour for a People’s Vote on whatever “deal” the Government comes up with grows, we must be hopeful that a cliff edge can be avoided. Remaining in the Single Market and Customs Union would certainly facilitate matters, but if we are going to do that, then we might as well stay in the EU, full stop.

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John Tusa Making a Noise ****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 15th July, 2018

John Tusa bookWithout a doubt, my favourite period during the 20 years I was based at BBC World Service at Bush House was when John Tusa was its Head. Having worked there in more junior roles at earlier stages in his career, he understood what made the place tick. The basement canteen was an extraordinary meeting place of resident experts and guests from all over the world, and he made a point of spending time there, chatting to everyone. As his autobiography, Making a Noise (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £25), makes clear, he would have loved to go on to be the BBC’s Director General, but there were powerful forces who were determined not to let that happen. Instead, the Corporation was landed with John Birt (or “the Dalek”, as we called him without affection at Bush), who wanted to bring about a revolution of management systems and efficiency measures which leeched much of the soul out of the institution. Fortunately for John Tusa, he had other fish to fry, not least as a TV presenter, not just on international affairs but also covering music and the other Arts — a passion shared with his wife Annie, with whom he has enjoyed a close partnership ever since they met as students at Cambridge. They went back to Cambridge, briefly, when he was appointed Principal of Wolfson College — an unmitigated disaster, as he recounts it, that lasted barely a year. That didn’t turn him completely off academe, however, as later, after a long, productive period running the Barbican Centre in the City, he would become Chairman of the University of Arts London, juggled along with being Chairman of the Clore Leadership Programme. Though now officially retired he is still full of beans, as I discovered when I went to see him being interviewed about the book by Robin Lustig at New Broadcasting House recently. All in all, he has had what is often tritely called a “glittering career” and not one many would have predicted when his father took him and the rest of his immediate family out of Czechoslovakia in the summer of 1939, to run a Bata shoe factory in Essex. Oddly, John Tusa never lived abroad himself again, though his broadcasting and Arts careers led to many short foreign assignments. He was thus a witness to important moments of history, including events in Poland in 1989, when Communism started to crumble in central and eastern Europe. There is therefore much that is fascinating about this book, though perhaps inevitably the later sections about Arts and academic administration are maybe less appealing to the general reader than earlier accounts of his work with the BBC. I would have liked more detailed pen portraits of some of the significant figures he encountered; instead there is a pot-pourri of amusing short memories in an “Envoi” at the end. Throughout, however, the author comes across as a man of great decency and discernment and a champion of several of the very best things about British and European civilization.

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Britain’s Soft Power

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 11th February, 2014

Sir Martin DavidsonVictorian Britain was associated with gunboat diplomacy and there are still some people in this country who think of power in terms of military might. But since the Second World War, Britain’s “soft power” has been more in evidence, not least through the work of the British Council and the BBC World Service. The Council’s Director, Sir Martin Davidson, was the guest speaker at a Global Strategy Forum event at the National Liberal Club this lunchtime and underlined how the teaching of English abroad and the fact that so many foreign students come to the UK to study both help this country’s economy as well as its global  presence. Without overtly criticising the Government for not increasing the Council’s presence around the globe (in stark contrast to China’s Confucius Institutes, for example) Sir Martin did nonetheless point out that the negative coverage in the Indian Press of the immigration and visa debates in the UK had directly led to a fall in the number of students from India applying to study here. I asked him what the British Council is doing or could be doing to counter the pernicious influence of the Daily Mail, Daily Express and UKIP on our reputation not just in India but globally, without getting an entirely satisfactory answer; but of course to be seen publicly to criticise influential British media might be difficult in Sir Martin’s position. Politicians and journalists need not operate under such constraints, however, which is why I spend so much of my time offering an alternative British narrative to that served up in the right-wing red-tops or the Faragistas’ pubs. The UK does still have a degreee of soft power, though it is redcued because of reductions to the budgets of the British Council and the ludicrous decision to integrate the World Service into the main BBC new and current affairs output. That soft power is increased by our membership of the European Union and is often a force for good in the wider world, which is why those of us who believe that need to stand up and say so.

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Tales from Bush House

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 2nd January, 2014

Tales from Bush HouseThe 20-odd years I spent working in Bush House as a freelancer for the BBC World Service were undoubtedly the happiest period of my diverse journalistic and writing career. The place was in some ways like an Oxbridge graduate college, only with the added verve of immediacy, in that its occupants were producing and broadcasting news and current affairs material, as well as cultural output,  in over 40 languages, as well as the 24-hour English language service. There were some brilliant men and women working in the place, as well as some who were a little bit crazy. The windowless canteen in the basement, where people sat wherever there was a space at a table, was one of the most convivial and stimulating eating places I have ever experienced. Like many, I was saddened when Bush House closed down — though I had long since moved on — and the World Service and a much reduced group of language services was integrated into New Broadcasting house. So it was an excellent idea of a small group of former Bush House employees to invite past colleagues from Central Asian language services and other sections to send in short reminiscences, with a special emphasis on amusing anecdotes. The result, Tales from Bush House (Hertfordshire Press) is an engagingly eclectic collection that will bring many a smile of recognition to those of us who worked in Bush, as well as lifting some of the veil of mystery that surrounded it in the minds of millions of listeners round the globe. Much emphasis is put on the mishaps and near-disasters — particularly in the days when programmes were put together on tape, sliced with razor blades — and the bumps in the night in the dormitories in North East wing, as well as memories of such oddities as the Lamson Tube, Bush’s equivalent of the Paris pneumatique system that sent petits bleus whooshing to their destinations around the compound. But due tribute is also made to the huge respect with which the World Service was and to a large extent still is regarded, not least by listeners in countries where there is no free media on which to rely.

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Farewell to Bush House

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 15th July, 2012

This week, the BBC World Service completed its move out of Bush House in the Aldwych to the state-of-the-art new news and current affairs HQ attached to Broadcasting House in Portland Place. As I drove past Bush House yesterday afternoon, a lump stuck in my throat. This was not just nostalgia for an iconic building, whose name and role as the voice of Britain were known throughout the world but also because of fears that I — and many others who worked there — have for the future of the World Service. During the 20-odd years I was based there, the whittling away of European language services began and staff cuts became ever more severe. There was a certain logic to the argument that previously Communist states of central and eastern Europe no longer needed Auntie to tell them what was going on in the world (including inside their own country) once they had their own free media, but the arguments for cutting some of the more exotic services were far less evident. Moreover, from the time John Birt took over as Director General of the BBC it became clear that the Corporation’s top brass did not value the World Service as much as its listeners or those who worked there did. That trend has alas continued, whatever Mark Thompson said in his valedicory broadcast. Moreover, as the World Service is now no longer funded by the Foreign Office, but instead by the general BBC licence fee, its “value” to those paying for it is bound to be further questioned. Worst of all, instead of having World Service radio, with all its different language services and regional departments, all under one roof in a building that was almost like an Oxbridge college in atmosphere and range of expertise, instead now World Service employees will hot-desk with other BBC staff, I understand, and technical resources will be pooled. This doubtlkess makes a lot of sense to accountants, but very little to those of us who treasured what had become during and after the Second World War, one of Britain’s greatest assets.

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BBC World Service at 80

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 2nd March, 2012

The courtyard at Bush House in London was transformed tonight thanks to a very high-tech marquee and a full-on operation by an Events Management team, complete with atmospheric coloured lighting, bars with chilled cabinets full of beers and white wine, and a modern pop music band playing well, but too loud for an event which should all have been about networking. The excuse for a party was the BBC World Service’s 80th anniversary, but this was also a funeral reception, as this month sees the beginning of the physical move of the iconic BBC World Service brand out of Bush House into “state-of-the-art” facilities in the new expanded Broadcasting House off Portland Place. Mark Thompson, BBC Director General, was predictably upbeat about the change, eulogising the integration of news and current affairs output, though as someone who worked at Bush House for almost 20 years, I was as sanguine as many of my former colleagues present about this (and also wondered how someone could have reached the pinnacle of a broadcasting career while uttering so many umms and errs when he speaks). Actually, this evening was the first of two parties: tonight targetted the great, the good and the has-beens. Current World Service staff were, by-and-large, channeled towards a ballot for tickets for a second event, to be held in the marquee tomorrow. (Former World Service head an all-round good egg, John Tusa, boycotted this evening’s reception in protest at this segregation, and the failure to invite all staff.) Yet it was still an impressive crowd tonight. Apart from diplomats and members of the House of Lords, who were there in profusion, we were graced by the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, who has truly found his niche, having previously bombed so tragically as Conservative Party Leader. He praised the work that the World Service has done over the past 80 years, and pointed out that just the other day London hosted a major international conference on Somalia, which is one country where disparate groups tune in religiously to the BBC to find out what is going on in their own country. Lord Williams of Baglan (my former BBC colleague and later UN official, Michael Williams, standing in for Chris Patten, Chairman of the BBC Trust, who had to be at a House of Lords debate on BBC funding) was reassuring as he presented himself as the man on the BBC Trust who has a particular brief regarding international services. Moreover, there were some living legends present at the party, such as Hugh Lunghi, interpreter for Winston Churchill at the Yalta Conference in February 1945. Yet this evening’s bash did feel like the curtain call for a wonderful institution and the people who worked in it. A goody-bag for guests contained a brochure which boasted that the BBC broadcasts in 27 languages; when I first started working in Bush House in 1983, this was over 40. Yes, there has been a welcome boost to the Arabic and Persian services in particular in recent years, not least in TV output. But much else has been lost. Not least of the losses is the unique Bush House ethos: that wonderful combination of expertise and truth-seeking. And as we guests were chased out of the marquee at 8.40, after the bars stopped serving drink (how different from the bacchinalean 70th event in 2002!), I couldn’t help thinking that I had been at not so much a celebration as a wake.


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Save the BBC Burmese Service!

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 9th September, 2010

There is a perverse topicality in the suggestion from the BBC World Service that it might be necessary to terminate the BBC’s Burmese language service, as it is currently celebrating its 70th year of existence. It is only right and proper that the World Service (which, unlike the domestic BBC is funded by the Foreign Office, not by the licence payer) should regularly review its language output. Sad though it was to see all the European language services closed over the past decade, it made little sense to keep on broadcasting to countries that had developed their own free media since the end of Communism. On the other hand, output in Arabic has rightly been increased and the Persian-language service has expanded, including into television. But it makes absolutely no political sense whatsoever to consider axing or even reducing the Burmese servce now. Burma — or Myanmar, as its military regime prefers to call it — is one of the most repressive countris on earth, ranked by Reporters without Borders as having the fifth least free media in the world. Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who won the last set of democratic elections in Burma in 1990, but was prevented by the military junta from taking office, has spent most of the intervening time under house arrest. She has personally testified how much the BBC Burmese Service has meant to her. I must declare an interest, as when I was writing daily commentaries on international affairs for the BBC World Service (on a freelance basis) from 1983-2003, the Burmese service frequently used them in translation. Even if that were not the case, however, I would be singing its praises and I am frankly shocked than anyone should even consider suggesting its being cut, for budgetary or any other reasons.

[Photo: Burma’s first Prime Minister, U Nu, appearing on BBC Burmese service radio)

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Electoral Reform, Democracy and the World

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 23rd November, 2009

This evening, Electoral Reform International Services (ERIS) hosted what they hope will be the first of many annual receptions, in the Brunei Gallery at London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). As I was lecturing at SOAS immediately before, the event could not have been more convenient. But far more important that that serendipity was the quality of the people present, including a clutch of Commonwealth High Commissioners, my old BBC World Service colleagues Elizabeth Smith and Mike Wooldridge, Electoral Reform types such as Ken Ritchie, Eric Siddique, Michael Steed et al, and of course our host for the evening. former Tory MP Keith Best, who still holds the flame aloft for fair voting (and humane immigration policies) within the Conservative Party. It was also good to see various people from the Westminster Foundation for Democracy (WFD, for whom I have done assignments in various parts of the world, including Ethiopia, where the British Ambassador at the time was Myles Wickstead, now one of the big cheeses in WFD and of course present this evening. I was heavily lobbied by a group of Iraqis who attended and who were urging that the West (including Britain) do more to foster genuine democracy and an end to corruption in that benighted land, which Tony Blair and Co ‘liberated’ only to create a political vacuum. We learn by our mistakes, I suppose — though personally I have long argued that the one thing we learn from history is that leaders learn nothing from history. Anyway, ERIS is doing great work and if it had some more financial backing, could be doing so much more!


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LIBG Forum on the US Elections

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 6th October, 2008

A dismayingly large percentage of the British electorate has shown little inclination to turn out in recent elections, but I suspect that several millions would just love to have a vote in the US presidential election next month. There is a rational case to make that the result of that contest will have more of an impact on our lives than many of the votes we are able to take part in. So it was maybe not surprising that the Forum on the US elections Liberal International British Group (LIBG) put on at the National Liberal Club tonight attracted a capicty audience; in fact, there were even people standing at the back.

We had a great line-up of speakers: Bill Barnard, Chairman of Democrats Abroad, (Lord) Chris Rennard, Chief Executive of the Liberal Democrats (who gave a most entertaining account of gate-crashing events at the recent Denver Democrat Convention) and Nick Childs, former Washington correspondent and now political correspondent of the BBC Wotld Service. There is little doubt that if Brits — indeed, almost any other nationality — could vote, Barack Obama would win by a landslide. But we can’t. And the Sarah Palin phenomenon, which leaves most Europeans open-mouthed with disbelief, taps into a certain genuine American small-town conservative religious vein. The contest is far from over. I suspect that far more Brits will be sitting up to watch the results on US election night next month than at any other previous US presidential contest.


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Options for Influence

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 29th September, 2008

‘Soft power’ and ‘public diplomacy’ have become buzzwords in both international affairs and domestic politics as countries and political parties hone their image and message. So the appearance of a new short book on the theme, Options for Influence (Counterpoint, £11.95), is timely. As the joint authors, Ali Fisher and Aurélie Brockerhoff note, ‘the aim of public diplomacy is not just changing people’s perceptions, but rather influencing the way people act.’

We see that at its clumsiest sometimes in the hands of the Bush administration in Washington. The European Union and the United Kingdom as an individual country like to think that they are more subtle and more adept at soft power. But anyone in the business — including politicians — could usefully study this book, which proclaims itself to be an introduction to the field of exerting influence through overt international communications. The content specially focuses on the British Council and the BBC World Service, but there are interesting examples discussed of other bodies such as NATO and the Chinese Confucian Institutes.

R.S. Zaharna, Associate Professor of Public Communication at Georgetown University in Washington, has correctly noted that networking has replaced information dominance as the new model of pesuasion in the global communication era. This little study takes on board such changes and wise political parties are doing so as well.


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