Friday 28 January 2011

In praise of the World Service

My favourite place is always right in the middle of bush. Bush House in Aldwych, that is, the former home of the World Service, my employers. Parts of the World Service have now been transplanted to Broadcasting House while 650 jobs have been ditched altogether. The marble steps, slinky banisters, brass fixtures and jaunty Art Deco lifts of Bush House will be converted into a leisure complex, that ironically fun-repelling late 90s yuppie term encompassing a hotel, gym, bar and restaurant.
We’re not sure yet how the cuts will pan out for the English language programmes, but either way it’s a tragedy for radio. Thanks to the World Service I have seen monks, mullahs and ministers in the canteen. I’ve heard my colleagues set up items in French, Japanese and Spanish. We have been interrupted during a two-way to Karachi by a crossed line from Burundi. I’ve been privileged to interview film-maker Maysoon Pachachi about her Open Shutters project recording Iraqi women’s experiences of war, Kenyan writer Ngugi Wa’Thiongo on his persecution by the government, Chinese writer and film-maker Xialuo Guo on the rapid transformation of her country and former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright on her brooch collection and its diplomatic subtext. The accompanying book is called Read My Pins. I have discussed Sufism with the poet Imtiaz Dharkar, Christ with Anne Rice, beauty ideals with American artist Wangechi Mutu and exile and realism with the legendary photographer Dorothy Bohm, nearly ninety and still going strong after fleeing Lithuania for England during World War Two.
Only the World Service makes programmes like this with people like that:  intelligent, diverse, egalitarian, groundbreaking, underpaid. It’s humbling to speak to so many global artists and thinkers whose perfect English may well be their third or fourth language. It’s shocking to leave work and encounter the relative insularity of  the national media. As one fan wrote to us, “Your news broadcast took me everywhere from Croatia to the Congo. I turned to Radio 4 and they were comparing Ed and Dave Miliband’s haircuts.”