Editorial

The BBC has done a great service to the Caribbean

Tuesday, November 08, 2011    

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The fulfilment of a promise by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) to donate the complete archives of its Caribbean Service broadcasts from 1988 to 2011 to the University of the West Indies (UWI) is most commendable.

For the gesture speaks not only to the BBC's recognition of the high quality of the programmes produced by the Caribbean Service, but also the iconic media house's appreciation for access to information and the value of thought being informed by research.

The BBC had made the promise of the donation when it decided to shut down the Caribbean Service as part of budget cuts announced in January this year.

It was, we are sure, a painful decision, but the BBC said it had no choice, given a 16 per cent cut in funding from the British Government.

In fact, the BBC also shuttered four other language services — Macedonian, Albanian, Serbian and that done in Portuguese for Africa — in an effort to save £46 million annually.

Additionally, seven other language services, including Spanish produced for Latin America, were moved from radio to online, mobile, and television in an apparent bid to keep abreast of the public's changing utilisation of technology for information.

We remember well that when the announcement was made in relation to the Caribbean service the BBC was criticised for not displaying an understanding of the complexities of the region.

That criticism, we feel, was a bit harsh, even as we suspect that it was driven by a sentimental attachment to the service which actually began in 1939 as a programme titled Calling the West Indies and which featured Caribbean nationals who were on active service during World War II reading letters to their families.

The region's love for the service would have been strengthened even further when, between 1943 and 1958, the programme was renamed Caribbean Voices and featured writers from the region, among them Messrs VS Naipaul, George Lamming, Andrew Salkey and Samuel Selvon.

In the mid-1970s, the service was closed, but the BBC reopened it in 1988 and there was no doubt that it provided the peoples of the region with a broader view of world affairs to complement the content presented by media in the Caribbean.

That the service had to be closed again is most unfortunate. Our hope, though, is that the closure won't be indefinite. However, that is a reality of the economics affecting many companies and countries worldwide.

But out of that disappointment has emerged the positive benefit to the people of the region, as the archives provide us with a rich history of news and commentary of Caribbean events.

In fact, the university's vice chancellor, Professor Nigel Harris, captured well the significance of the possession of the archives and the UWI's role as curator when he pointed out at last Friday's handover that "a university is not only about education and research, but... a repository of a civilisation's history".

The void created by the shutting down of the BBC Caribbean Service is, we believe, an opportune moment for our region to renew its efforts to establish a regional news network that will be properly funded, staffed and equipped to ensure longevity.

It is an imperative that is impatient of debate.

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