BUSHLOG photo archive World Service Newsroom 15
"Telling the world the world news" booklet, published by BBC External Services, Summer 1978
Britain's hereditary advantage

I BELIEVE we have some very considerable advantages over our competitors, even over those most friendly to us. In case this should sound complacent or be felt to be lacking in modesty let me make it clear that many of those advantages are not of our making. They are inherent in the nature of the society and the culture from which we draw our professional and corporate substance. They stem from the history of this country, and from its liberal traditions, particularly from its tradition of concern for, and involvement in, world affairs. They stem from the fact that it is still possible for people the world over to see in Britain not the confused, disputatious, dissatisfied, disorientated society which we imagine ourselves to be, but a country in which there reigns tolerance, justice, sanity and democracy, a country which remains the repository of a good deal of wisdom and experience of affairs, which shed the imperial mantle with a measure of grace, and has known how to retain and foster, all over the world, but particularly in the Commonwealth, that great web of relationships of every kind, personal, political, professional, which was built up over the generations. Ultimately these relationships have their roots in the attractiveness to others of British political ideas and values. You could add, too, that as Britain has gradually withdrawn from its role as a world power so its voice, through the BBC, has gained in authority and in credibility. You could add that London is still a cultural and artistic centre for people the world over -which it is - a power-house of expertise of every kind - which it also is - and one of the greatest communications and news centres of the world. And, so some of my foreign friends keep telling me, Britain is still a good country to live in, in contrast to many others.

Now you must admit that these are very considerable advantages which greatly outweigh our temporary difficulties. They mean that we have a head start over our competitors from the outset because people want to hear what we have to say and are predisposed towards us. I believe, moreover, that we have a further crucial advantage which is that this country has shown itself capable of creating independent public broadcasting structures, which have enabled External Broadcasting to flourish within these structures instead of operating, as is more usual elsewhere, within the Government machine. Thus we have been able to play a more credible and effective role in projecting Britain abroad in the national interest. That independence, which is very real and the value of which has been repeatedly confirmed, remains our most cherished possession. It is often, of course, disbelieved in the face of all the evidence to the contrary - and that is not to be wondered at - since no relevant model for such a situation exists in most countries. Or it is regarded as a peculiar Anglo-Saxon arrangement, a bit of camouflage which enables us to have the best of both worlds. The Chinese Ambassador in London, when he first visited the BBC a few years ago, questioned me closely about our status. 'Are you an official body?' he asked, 'No,' I said. 'Semi-official?' 'No,' I said. 'The voice of Britain?' he suggested after a brief pause. 'Yes,' I said, 'something like that.' That seemed to satisfy him. I have always wondered whether expressions exist in Chinese which can render these subtle Anglo-Saxon arrangements.

The answers to questions about the future of the BBC External Broadcasting must rest not just on issues of narrowly conceived self-interest, on the shifting political

priorities of the day with their capricious twists and turns, but on the importance we attach to the free movement of ideas, to the world-wide dissemination of the truth, and on what priorities we are prepared to give to ensure that the values of our own society, which are to do with the basic freedoms, with sanity, decency and truth, continue to be held up as a viable and desirable way of running a society; thus encouraging those denied these freedoms in their hope that they may one day achieve them. It is what Roy Hattersley had in mind when he said in the House of Commons on 24 February 1976: 'I believe that we have an absolute duty to Western Europe and to our own democratic philosophy not to avoid or run away from the war of ideas but to play an increasingly positive part in what the Soviet Union chooses to call the ideological struggle. The Soviet Union may be superior to the West in terms of men and tanks,' he went on, 'I believe it to be utterly inferior to the West in terms of ideas about the organisation of politics and political democracy. That is an area in which we can compete on more than equal terms in Europe, Africa and Asia.'

Not long ago, the French Government began publication under the title of The Voices of Freedom a history of the Second World War as seen through the daily broadcasts of the BBC French Service. An article in Le Monde to mark the occasion seemed in no doubt about where our priorities should lie: 'When one meets the veterans of this crusade,' it said, 'one feels reassured. And one can well imagine that tomorrow, if faced with other totalitarianisms, whether of the red or the black variety, which might once again threaten the dignity of man by depriving him of his essential freedoms, the BBC, whose own democratic traditions took strength from the battle against the fascist propaganda of those days, when it took upon itself the defence of truth, would once again become a bastion where honour could take refuge and where hope could find weapons ready for use.'