CRCE Briefing Paper
Western Broadcasting in the Cold War and After:
Was it worth it and is it worth it today?
Based on a talk by Elisabeth Robson, May 2007
Price for print edition: £7.50
About the Author
Dr Elisabeth Robson studied in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) as a post-graduate student, edited the London University journal of Slavonic studies, taught at Brighton Polytechnic and worked for the BBC World Service as a journalist and programme-maker and as manager, founding and developing new departments and ending her career as head of the Russian Service. She now does freelance writing and consulting work.
Her experience of broadcasting covers the Cold War, Gorbachev's period of glasnost' and the collapse of the USSR. Her various posts include the creation of the Ukrainian Service, a completely new department, the headship of the Central Asian and Caucasus Service, born similarly to meet the needs of newly independent nations. A period as Regional Editor brought new areas of interest – Turkey, Afghanistan and Iran – and then came the headship of the Russian Service with a London operation and a large Moscow office to manage.
Looking back over a lifetime in the field Dr Robson asks: what was the role of Western broadcasters, and specifically the BBC, in these seismic events and was the effort worth it?
The Constitution of the CRCE requires that its Trustees and Advisers dissociate themselves from the analysis contained in its publications, but it is hoped that readers will find this study of value and interest.
First published May 2007
© Elisabeth Robson & Centre for Research into Post-Communist Economies.
All Rights Reserved
Western Broadcasting in the Cold War and After:
Was it worth it and is it worth it now?
Chris Cviic: Our speaker is Elisabeth Robson, who has had a long and distinguished career in broadcasting.
Elisabeth Robson: A word of advance warning: the title promises 'western broadcasting' – the station I know most about is the BBC, so this talk will inevitably be heavily BBC-focussed. As will become clear, much of what I have to say applies to other stations as well.
The talk will fall into two halves, before the collapse of the Soviet Union and after.
As for the substance, measuring 'worth', now required of all government-funded institutions and many others besides, this presents particular difficulties. For virtually all of the Soviet period it was impossible to measure audiences accurately or even establish what kind of people listened. The best we could manage were educated guesses based on letters, personal encounters and Soviet press reports. The post-Soviet world saw the arrival of western-style audience research, but also new difficulties of interpretation, and in addition massive constraints of cost. What I propose therefore is to pull together experience and facts where they exist to form a picture, which I hope will give a sense of what the broadcasters were trying to do during the Cold War; what they are doing now and leave it to the discussion to open up how far, if at all, it was and is a sensible way to spend taxpayers' money.
The Cold War Period
Radio really came into its own during the Second World War: we have all heard the stories of messages broadcast into occupied France – incidentally from Bush House where the World Service is still located, and of broadcasting in German. There was no Russian broadcasting because, it is suggested, as an ally it was thought Stalin would not like it. There was one significant broadcast in Russian: Churchill's 1941 speech to Parliament on the Nazi invasion of the USSR. It was translated as it was delivered by two Russian émigrés who later became founding members of the Russian Service and one of whom was still there when I joined in 1969. I never met anyone in the USSR who had heard of the speech, still less listened to the broadcast, but it was symbolic of the belief in the power of radio.
Broadcasting in Russian began in earnest in 1946 when it was apparent Stalin was no longer a friend to the West. We should remember the international climate of the time: the Soviet refusal to allow democratic elections and the installation of pro-Soviet regimes in the Soviet occupied territories, the murder of elected leaders and eventual subjugation of Czechoslovakia, the division of Germany, later the Berlin blockade.
The histories of broadcasting capture the atmosphere of the times perfectly in their titles: Let Truth be Told (Gerard Mansell), War of the Black Heavens (Michael Nelson), Radio Free Europe and the Pursuit of Democracy (George Urban). The subtitle of George Urban's book, "My War within the Cold War" continues the theme of fighting for something, and that something, the liberation of the whole Soviet Bloc, fired a particular kind of idealism in the founders and staff of the BBC Russian Service.
Interestingly, the histories also contain the reports and government exchanges that preceded the licence to the BBC's "External Services" to broadcast overseas "in the national interest". The memos are full of questions about what sort of material would be acceptable – leading articles of newspapers could be translated for broadcast, but above all staff must not write analysis, still less comment, themselves. It is clear from the documents that the government would really have preferred the war-time model of close control and censorship and was worried at the prospect of Russian émigrés with their own axes to grind having free access to the microphone. The government also wished there to be a close relationship with the Foreign Office to ensure the propriety of the output.
The most serious charge levelled at the BBC Russian Service by the Soviet authorities was that it was a propaganda station. The BBC itself from very early on was very clear that it interpreted the national interest as providing unbiased information for listeners, demonstrating the best British values of fairness and honesty. This task is enshrined in the BBC Charter and the then Director General of the BBC did not see why the External Services should be different. Many years of experience have shown that this decision was absolutely correct, with the BBC acquiring an authority among listeners denied to stations which had to broadcast a clear government "line".
I, of course, knew nothing of this when I found myself in Leningrad in August 1968. I had been in Leningrad for the best part of a year as a graduate student and I had heard a few people allude to the BBC. Sometimes it was in connection with the trial the previous year of the writers Andrei Sinyavsky and Yulii Daniel, on charges of anti-Soviet activities – in their case daring to publish abroad works that were rejected by Soviet publications - the first post-Khrushchev cause celebre. Among my fellow students the BBC was more often cited as a source of information about the Beatles, but listening was officially frowned on and could be part of a charge of "anti-Soviet activity" which carried terms of prison and labour camp. The Prague Spring had opened up political discussion everywhere; but in August the threats to the Dubcek government became much more ominous and I found myself on the floor of a Leningrad apartment with my ear pressed to a short wave radio set (reception was better in that position) listening to the English-language programme of the World Service and translating it to a group of friends as the tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia. The invasion slammed down the lid on all debate and the ferocious jamming which had prevented my friends listening in Russian was to continue for some considerable time.
It did not stop them listening altogether, however, and they became cleverer at finding the spots where jamming failed. Jamming is the broadcasting of a loud and unpleasant noise on the same frequencies as programmes are transmitted and was used against western broadcasters from the start of their activities; it eased periodically at times of political thaw and there are many entertaining stories about jammers coming on as sensitive were aired, and of engineers playing around with signals, etc. Jamming is as expensive as broadcasting the real thing, and it was never wholly effective, although listening in the centres of cities was usually extremely difficult. This led to a particular style of broadcasting, with extremely clear diction at rather slow speeds. It was also the rationale for repeating programmes, as conditions could vary from day to day. Dachas were favourite listening places, and in London in the early seventies weekend programmes were strengthened because of this. There were also clever tricks to be played with frequencies and a BBC engineer even produced a cardboard box lined with tin foil which allegedly allowed one to hear the radio unhindered. I never heard if it worked, and I had doubts, if only on the grounds that as far as I knew there was no tin foil readily available in the USSR.
The other big western broadcasters started up soon after the BBC – first the Voice of America, a more clearly governmental station broadcasting State Department statements, and Radio Liberty, at that time quite separate from Radio Free Europe – the latter broadcast to E. Europe, RL to the whole of the USSR in the languages of all the republics. The purpose of RFE-RL was quite different from the BBC and VOA, it was to provide a surrogate domestic broadcasting service, since listeners were deprived of such a service at home. This meant that RFE/RL carried much more internal material and generally therefore was of more interest to listeners. Deutsche Welle was a less significant player, but widely present and there were a number of smaller offerings, such as Swedish and French, while the Chinese for their part had many hours of broadcasts but were even more virulently propagandist than the Soviet ones for the West. Russians would say they listened to the Chinese to have a good laugh.
What all the western broadcasters offered listeners was news – international, and to a varying extent internal Soviet, analysis of the news and different kinds of feature material ranging from literary to musical. In those days cultural programmes made a particular impact because for Soviet listeners that was often the only way new ideas, new ways of thinking, new philosophies, could reach them. As samizdat grew in importance as a way of spreading new works in all genres to a public sick of censorship and the tedious products of orthodox Soviet writing, it soon became in addition an important channel of information about internal affairs, who had been arrested, how the trial had been conducted. These documents soon made their way to the West, and were broadcast back and added to the debates "in the kitchen" where people really spoke their minds to people they trusted. Radio Liberty soon had an vast archive of samizdat documents of all kinds, an amazing resource for specialists and broadcasters alike.
VOA was a big hit with the younger generation with its American pop music, recorded off air and circulated on cassettes – the quality suffering horribly from the drawbacks of short wave broadcasting as well as the poor quality of the recording equipment.
All the stations carried some information about Soviet internal affairs, but RFE/RL scored with its detailed coverage of political developments in the country, dissidents, samizdat literature and human rights issues, trials, sentences, etc. Many listeners would listen to a range of western broadcasters for different things and those who listened had a clear picture of what each station represented.
The BBC had Anatoly Maksimovich Goldberg, whose name is still one to conjure with in Russia and the republics with the older generation. His even, moderate tone attracted criticism in some quarters that he was 'soft on the Soviets' but he believed that he was engaged in a form of dialogue with the Soviet leadership. Unfortunately in 1968 it wasn't listening – Goldberg had argued that invasion was not an option because it would be against the interests of the USSR. He was right in the long term, of course – only it was 20 years long. His many listeners, however, valued his approach, which spoke a language they could understand and relate to, without being put off by any kind of strident lecturing. No one since had the authority of Anatoly Maksimovich in addressing the Soviet and post-Soviet audience.
Audience research of the normal kind was, of course, impossible but some interesting research was done with the few Soviets who arrived in the West, and with sailors prepared to answer questions. RFE/RL worked out a system for weighting the results of the questions to adjust for the fact that official visitors represented a very narrow slice of the population and were in no way representative. There were also letters – in the days of e-mails we tend to forget that letters were written and were delivered, sometimes by round-about routes, and listeners had no hesitation in expressing their views. Jamming was not always blanket and there were periods when people could listen relatively easily, but this was always subject to change with the politics of the day: after the suppression of the Prague Spring, the rise of Solidarity in Poland was the next really big crisis and heavy jamming was imposed in August 1980. Jamming did not cease for the BBC until New Year 1987 – just in time for a landmark series on Stalin which I had produced with a Russian colleague.
A good example of listening in the USSR is the case of Solzhenitsyn, who lived in the city of Ryazan. When he was thrown out of the USSR one of the journalists crowding at the airport was Janis Sapiets, editor and presenter of many religious programmes and of features on philosophical and cultural topics; he was head of the Current Affairs Research Unit at the BBC World Service. Janis was granted the first interview because Solzhenitsyn had heard his broadcasts and recognised his voice in the crowd. Later it emerged that he had listened to and valued a series of programmes based on George Orwell's writings which I had prepared and which led to me preparing the interlinear translation of Solzhenitsyn's epic poem of the Second World War, Prussian Nights, for Robert Conquest to put into verse. To mark the twentieth anniversary of the publication of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (Novy Mir, No. 11, 1962) Solzhenitsyn, in exile in the USA, read the work in full himself for the BBC, where it reached out again to Soviet listeners.
Given the lack of detailed research – and I have not been able to establish whether the KGB did any numerical research into listening to foreign stations – we shall probably never know how many people used to listen. In 1981 The Times reported the managing director of the External Services as believing that prior to the re-imposition of jamming in August 1980 (with the rise of the Solidarity movement in Poland) the BBC had 12-13 million listeners. Whether or not this figure is correct, the ferocity of the attacks in the Soviet media on "enemy voices" indicates the insecurity the Soviet authorities felt about western broadcasts and would suggest they were seriously influential. The frequency of the attacks, and of the inclusion of listening to foreign stations in the charge sheets of many dissidents, suggests that listening was never seriously reduced, even by draconian measures. Post-1991, I have raised a laugh many times by introducing myself as an "enemy voice" and everyone present knew exactly what I meant.
I think we can, however, make a number of assumptions about audiences. They:
- Were among the better educated
- Realised they were information poor
- Were spread across the country – many provincial towns and rural areas could hear the signal, delivered on short wave, alongside Soviet stations
- Were by no means all dissidents, closet or otherwise
- Resented the secrecy that covered so much that went on inside their own country
- Were fascinated by the West and did not believe all they were told about it officially.
These assumptions apply right across the USSR, although some republics were more clearly "anti-Soviet" – such as the Baltic States, western Ukraine, parts of the Caucasus, etc.
Western broadcasters offered listeners a range of new ideas about the world – theirs and the west – and could even be said to have set the agenda for the debate on the future of the USSR which erupted with Gorbachev's reforms and the burgeoning of glasnost (openness). Unrestricted by jamming, listening soared and audience contact increased. The first stringers offered their services as reporters for the BBC and RFE/RL.
Whatever we think of the evolution of post-Soviet Russia, the first moves of Yeltsin and his reform team were clearly influenced by western ideas, and western experts were invited to help with the reform. Kozyrev as foreign minister promoted a clearly pro-western policy. The seeds of this desire to reintegrate with the west were sown much earlier, through the foreign broadcasts.
1991 and after
This brings us to 1991, the collapse of the USSR and the emergence of fourteen new independent states.
The period of the failed coup against Gorbachev was itself an extraordinary time. No doubts here about how important the radios were for listeners. It is easy to forget how alarming it was in Moscow during the first two days of the coup with tanks on the move and all the old symbols of Soviet control reappearing, notably in television and radio programmes – Swan Lake and the old, stone-faced presenter of television news reading his prepared statement over and over again - and at the same time the Committee giving an impression of dangerously unpredictable, doddery old age.
With the newly emerging independent media sector shut down, Radio Liberty, which broadcast 24/7 to the USSR, gave airtime to Ekho Moskvy; RFE/RL's own stringers, the BBC's stringers and no doubt many more, reported to their home bases all day and all night on every development and this was beamed back into the country. The crowds that gathered in support of Yeltsin at the White House included many with transistor radios clapped to their ears listening to RL and the BBC. In this way they were able to learn what was happening inside the White House, who had come out in support, what other governments were saying. This, combined with the telephones and fax machines open to send information out and receive information, and the local efforts to photocopy pages of reports and chronicled events by local journalists which were posted all over Moscow, ensured the defeat of the plotters. A notable example of how the news was got out to the public in Moscow came thanks to the real heroism of the director of the Library for Foreign Literature, Dr Ekaterina Genieva. She was approached by journalists from the new independent newspaper sector who wanted to use her library's photocopying machine overnight. At that time photocopiers were kept under lock and key and at night were alarmed through a link to the local militia station. Despite this, she went ahead and opened her photocopier to the journalists who ran off hundreds of copies of their news sheet which were then posted all round Moscow. Opening the photocopying room door had set off the alarm in the local police station, and the local militia chief came round to the Library. Dr Genieva said she took full responsibility for the machine working, to which he replied: "Dr Genieva, that is fine. Just make sure no light is visible from the street."
In the euphoria of post-independence states, a whole new world of opportunities opened up to the BBC. Among the many "firsts" were: recruitment in country, previously completely impossible; an office could be opened; partner broadcasters could be sought; local hire of transmitters with better frequencies could be negotiated; audience research was possible. And funding was found to broadcast in languages other than Russian to the former republics.
1992 saw the launch of the Ukrainian Service. In fact planned before the coup, it was absolutely on target for the newly independent state, and benefited from the awareness of the BBC which had always had good audiences in Ukraine, thanks to a strong short wave signal. Getting approval to hire transmitters and open our first office required an almost surreal visit to a high party official in the traditional party building – red carpet with stripes along the edges, vastly high ceilings, poky offices, shiny varnished cabinets and huge desks, secretaries with nothing to do waiting for the phones to ring. My task was to explain the BBC approach and why this would be good for Ukraine. He agreed and our plans went ahead. Along the way there were some dirty tricks from state broadcasting, which claimed to support our wish to broadcast but in fact did not – I saw the signed memo: the Foreign Ministry, Ministry of Communications and the Security Services had no objection; State Broadcasting objected.
The Ukrainian Service soon established its authority and one of its achievements was to set a high standard for the use of Ukrainian, which made a significant contribution to its use instead of Russian for serious discourse. We hired a well-known writer and translator to help with our Ukrainian, as arguments raged about "correct" and "good" usage. Partnerships with independent stations developed, sometimes revealingly: Eastern Ukraine was not enthusiastic about the use of Ukrainian instead of Russian, pressing for Russian to have equal status with Ukrainian. Media law required a minimum amount of broadcasting in Ukrainian, and we found stations would take our programmes, but in no circumstances the Ukrainian language programmes of state broadcasting! In time stations in Eastern Ukraine were asking for Russian-language programmes prepared by the Ukrainian service – they said the programmes for Russia were too Moscow-oriented. Currently it is thought some three million people listen to the BBC and during the political crisis there were about three-quarters of a million hits on the website.
This new world of broadcasting provided plenty of strange experiences: the potential rebroadcaster who arrived in the office with two heavies and an early mobile phone the size of a car battery; the visit to Kriviy Rih to launch our co-operation – night train, vodka and caviar for breakfast and station owners whose other business interests must have been vastly more profitable to judge by the marble in their offices and the cars they drove. The BBC publicity bus, a red London bus, which left people open-mouthed at the roadside as we trundled through the Ukrainian countryside; the crowds which mobbed us when we stopped. The idealistic youngsters who loved 'doing radio' and were trying so hard to do it well. The abuse we got in Crimea for bringing in that filthy language Ukrainian, and the strange weeks when it was alleged that Kiev would attack Crimea to bring it under control – it never did, of course. And Crimea is still part of Ukraine, even if Moscow mayor Luzhkov does have a dacha on the seashore, and when Kuchma was president flew down at will to use it.
In the Caucasus the BBC enjoys great prestige, but the decline in the use of Russian means that it is harder to satisfy listeners with Russian-language and English output. Of the three republics only Azerbaijan has a vernacular programme which attracts 7.2% of the audience (some 400,000 people) as weekly listeners. In Kazakhstan, by contrast, Russian does well, and there is rebroadcasting in provincial cities and transmitter hire which additionally allows broadcasting into Uzbekistan. Kyrgyzstan is another success story, in part because it has access to the state radio airwaves. An OSCE election monitor, who was based in the remote province of Naryn, near the Chinese border, reported that locally people spoke highly of the BBC's broadcasts and listened regularly. Audience research shows that in 2003 9.6% of the audience listened to the BBC, a figure which has almost certainly grown with the construction of three additional FM transmitters. Uzbekistan itself initially was friendly towards the BBC and allowed local rebroadcasting and transmitter hire, but although the attack on New York's twin towers in September 2001 and the war on terror changed the international climate in parts of Central Asia, in Uzbekistan Karimov's flirting with the Americans has now ceased, the US base is closed and Uzbekistan lives with heavily controlled media and an extremely active secret police. As Karimov's regime has become increasingly repressive, it has become harder and harder to work there and all the facilities previously available to the BBC have been reduced to nothing. About 18 months ago, after months of harassment, the BBC office there was closed and its staff were offered asylum in the UK. The programmes for Uzbekistan are now prepared entirely in London, with input from reporters in neighbouring countries. There are no surveys of audiences in Uzbekistan, but the FM transmitters operating from Kyrgyzstan, according to local reports, are widely listened to in the Ferghana Valley.
The challenges facing the BBC in these countries are not identical, and in some countries the BBC is able to build on its pre-independence reputation. Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, are a case in point. In others growing political repression is accompanied by difficulties with broadcasting. In Azerbaijan the government is considerably less friendly than it used to be, and periodically creates difficulties with transmitters and rebroadcasters although relations at present are reasonable. In some countries the main problem is money – in Kazakhstan, for instance, the government does not oppose rebroadcasting and transmitter hires, but funds are limited. In others the problem is language, Georgia being the most extreme example, where Russian is not routinely taught any more and young people learn English instead.
Post 1991 it has been possible to measure audiences more accurately. There is always debate about polls and audience research – look at the arguments about polls at election times in this country. Similar caveats must be registered for research in all the countries of the former Soviet Union, where difficulties of communication and transport around the country, the lack of a real culture of independent polling and the sheer size of a country like Russia mean than accurate sampling is extremely difficult. Local surveys should be more accurate, but can they be extrapolated to indicate audiences in the whole country?
That said, we know that in the lead up to and immediately after August 1991 audiences soared. This situation did not last, and in retrospect perhaps we should say it could not last: local media were getting themselves organised, the FM band was opened up and music and entertainment stations appeared, independent television started making an impact on audiences to state television stations, which were themselves reorganised and redefined. Advertising became the main funding source and the advertisers acquired tremendous power in relation to the broadcasters. Inevitably, the appeal of short wave broadcasts was seriously challenged on sound quality alone. Foreign broadcasters made deals to hire transmitters and create partnerships with local stations, but generally found it difficult and expensive to obtain an FM frequency and changes in media law made the regulatory environment difficult to understand, let alone manage. Radio Liberty developed a network of medium wave transmitters across the country, and shut down much of its short wave capacity. The BBC too reduced its output on short wave to a 'safety net' service and managed to obtain medium wave frequencies in Moscow, St Petersburg and Ekaterinburg. As the nineties drew to a close, it was apparent that audiences were shrinking, and the weekly audience was down from 5.6% of the age group in 1998 to 3.2% in 2000.
Russia is both the most important and the most difficult case. Audience research has tracked the changes in some detail, although none of the research covers the whole country. The euphoria of the early 90s soon gave way to suspicion of the West's motives and a general lack of trust in media in general and western broadcasters in particular. It is very striking to see how the figures for awareness, which were around 90 per cent in 1992, have dropped to below 20 per cent by the early years of this century, and trustworthiness ratings for the same period have also slid downwards.
The latest figures for listening are extremely disheartening and it is worth looking at some of the reasons behind these figures: in Russia audience reach is 2.3 per cent, where a year ago it was 4 per cent, in both Moscow and St Petersburg. This translates into an estimated global audience of 800,000, whereas the previous estimate was over 1,000,000.
One million listeners seems a very small figure for a country the size of Russia, which indeed it is. But the problems are ones that are not readily solved by the BBC alone. I mentioned the collapse of short wave listening: for those of you not involved in radio, short wave travels huge distances and delivers a surprisingly good signal, particularly if the receiver is in the footprint of the first hop (bounce off the ionosphere) rather than the second. However, the signal does tend to fluctuate, producing drop out and wow, no way to lure modern listeners who now listen almost exclusively to FM quality broadcasts or to medium wave in their cars.
The great advantage is that transmitters can and are sited well outside the target area and are unaffected by internal politics, except for jamming. The USSR used short wave for its own internal broadcasts, given the vast distances it had to cover. Post-Soviet broadcasting is using satellites and local transmitters and listeners are switching to medium wave (the wave band of Radio 5 Live) and above all to FM, which was not used at all in the Soviet period – they had their own version in slightly lower frequencies which is still in use. Cars can usually receive medium wave and FM; at home people tend to use FM with all the music stations, entertainment programmes and local channels you could want.
For the BBC to be heard in Russia are there at present two routes:
- establish a partnership with an existing station so that it takes the BBC's programmes;
- hire a transmitter with an appropriate frequency to cover the target area.
In both cases a decision has to be taken about who one wants to reach and where one is looking for the facility – Russia is so vast and the media market relatively fragmented, so that only the state broadcasters cover the whole country. Given the limited resources available to the BBC such a choice involves deciding whether it is more important to reach listeners in Moscow and St Petersburg than, say, Novosibirsk or Vladivostok and whether the target audience is opinion formers or broader circles. These questions provoke much debate in marketing circles. Finding rebroadcasters was initially relatively easy and many stations signed up for a BBC receiver so that they could include BBC programmes in their schedules. Transmitter hires were also easy in the 90s – providing one had enough money. FM frequencies were the most expensive. In recent years the main effort in Russia has gone into the northern part of European Russia, which includes Moscow and St Petersburg.
The Russian Government started working on the regulation of the media quite early, and this has become the means by which foreign broadcasters are controlled under Putin. A complex system of licences, for which stations bid, and rules about broadcast content, mean that foreign broadcasters can no longer operate outside the rules governing domestic stations, and it has become easier to deny the foreigners facilities on the grounds that their documents are not in order. Licences are also required for transmitter hires, and rebroadcasters must have special licences too. The last couple of years have seen more and more stations lose their licences and decide therefore to drop the BBC. The most recent development is the FM licence in Moscow, which the BBC shared with another station, but from which the BBC has been excluded. There have been similar problems in St Petersburg, ending with the loss of access to FM. This exclusion accounts for the dramatic loss of audience highlighted above.
The dilemmas for the BBC are various: government complaint is unlikely to produce a result ("you must obey the rules"), new partners are thin on the ground because of the risk of sanctions, transmitter hires for medium wave may be available, although RL has lost many of its medium wave transmitters, but FM is the key to big audiences. To have a really big impact across the country, you need sums far in excess of what is currently available to obtain a network of medium wave transmitters, even more for FM, and you risk losing your licences on a technicality.
Technology is at hand, however, but will it come quickly enough? One option is already there: the internet. The BBC was quick to develop a web site in Russian and other languages of the former USSE, and it has some capacity to download programmes – providing the person accessing the site has a good enough connection or is extremely patient. Broadband penetration is growing, but it is still limited to major cities and the majority of internet users either log on at work, use an internet café, or the telephone. Wi-fi may solve the infrastructure problem in time, but wealth is heavily concentrated in a few cities and much of the country is still extremely poor. The BBC web site continues to develop and reach more and more people. It is often cited by Russian news sites and on Russian media – and of course it is accessed all the time by other news organisations. It is perfectly possible to deliver radio over the internet, thus saving the whole paraphernalia of transmitters, partner stations, licences, etc. However, in the absence of widespread access to broadband, it will be a while before it becomes a recognised way of listening in Russia, and then there are all those car drivers wanting to listen to something.
The other area of technology development is transmitting: there is now a digital form of shortwave which gives very good sound. There is also direct broadcast by satellite. Both require special radio sets and the radio business is currently waiting to see which big players decide to do what.
Another way to go would be television and radio by satellite, since, as in the west, television is the preferred means of receiving both news and entertainment and is watched by more people for longer than listen to radio, although radio has its niche position. In Russia there is still the issue of satellite delivery – Russians are not yet accustomed to having a satellite dish, but this is coming and would also help radio. The really big audiences go with television, and a genuinely serious attempt to reach the Russian audience should consider television. However, with all efforts focussed on the Arab world, the necessary resources are unlikely to be forthcoming.
So where are we on value for taxpayers' money? I have no doubt at all, despite the absence of numerical audience research, that a high proportion of educated people listened to the BBC and other foreign broadcasters during the Soviet period not just in the capitals but across the country. The large class of provincial teachers and the technical intelligentsia provided many listeners. They listened for information that was denied to them, for intellectual stimulus and for a view of the West they could not visit for themselves. The Gorbachev period showed the hunger for information as glasnost opened the floodgates; elections showed that the Communist Party machine could not swing voters in free elections, and the ability to travel allowed people to see for themselves what had long been denied them.
Should we bother now? I am hardly unbiased, but I do believe that something of the same role is needed to this day. The real difficulty is that Russians today think they are well informed because they have endless media choice, but at the same time they don't trust journalists. Tight state control of Russian television leaves no room for a critical voice and simply fuels the cynicism of the public. Eventually, I believe, the public will start to look for alternatives outside the state controlled area. In answer to questions about what they want from foreign broadcasters, Russians will say they want to verify the news from other media, and also "stimulation for the intellect" and "insight into the lives and views of people abroad". How that free offering will be delivered and whether we are willing to pay for it probably depends on how Russia evolves post-Putin.
For the BBC, however, and other broadcasters facing the same problems, I believe that we need a bigger, more compelling vision of what we are about than the market analysts offer, with their talk of brands and segmentation. In the Soviet period the BBC was perceived as being with the best elements in Soviet society at the same time as it promoted British values. In today's cynical world it is more difficult even to use terms like fairness, honesty, unbiased broadcasting, but however old-fashioned it seems, we must project that we are still with the best elements of Russian society, that we still believe in values that they too share and that is what we are about.
Extracts from the Questions and Answers Session
Chris Cviic: Thank you very much for a most interesting talk, and particularly for an upbeat conclusion that there is still something in the business that some of us were in in the 1950s. Ladies and Gentlemen, I open the floor to discussion.
Audience Member: You mention the measure of success, and said you could not rely on audience surveys. But there are two measures of success, which you did not mention. The first was infiltration; if you do your job properly, the agents of the Russian State would take an interest in monitoring those involved in the broadcasting of foreign news. The second was assassination. If the KGB took you be a serious threat, they liquidated you. Four people in the Romanian Radio Free Europe, three of them directors, were poisoned with thallium, the KGB's favourite tool. When the station intended to broadcast extracts from General Pacepa's book, Red Horizons , Vlad Georgescu, a Director, received an unambiguous threat that this would be dangerous for him. He was later assassinated.
Elisabeth Robson: I am aware it was a very dangerous business. Fortunately, we did not have any poisonings or assassinations in the Russian Service. Curiously, I do not remember any direct threats.
Chris Cviic: There was a lot of spying in the Yugoslav Service, in which I worked. I believe that a member of that service, working for the Yugoslav Secret Service, actually broke into the English radio department in order to find the identity of spies using the radio as a conduit for messages. There must have been other spies, but I do not recall assassinations. However, I remember on my honeymoon in Vienna, I was advised not to have salt as a friend had suffered an attempt to poison him with arsenic hidden in the salt cellar.
Elisabeth Robson: A relevant story relates to the broadcasting of Svetlana Alliluyeva's memoirs, scheduled to go out when George Brown, then Foreign Minister, was due to be in Moscow. There were very strong representations from the Foreign Office that the BBC should not do this. After much heart searching, and much criticism internally, it was decided to postpone the broadcast until after Brown's visit. These occasions were very unusual.
Audience Member: I was thinking of the relationship with the Foreign Office in the immediate post Cold War era of expansion into broadcasting in the languages of the republics, around 1991-1992. Did that feel like a period of converging interests between the Foreign Office and the BBC, or was it more difficult to identify what to do next in co-operation?
Elisabeth Robson :By 1991, the Foreign Office no longer dictated the languages and lengths of broadcasts. There was still discussion in the review meetings. Yes, there was a sense that everyone was in favour of the new developments, and wanted to make the most of the opportunities. The funding did not really materialise in any great amount; the Ukrainian Service was initially founded out of the budget of the Russian Service. The World Service departments had to offer a cut, and bid for money for new ventures. The pot did not get any bigger, and in recent years the increase in budget has been below inflation. It has been very tight to do these new things. The funding for Central Asia and the Caucasus has been similarly produced by managing existing budgets. Money has been earmarked for things like big transmitter projects and, I assume, for the Arabic effort.
Audience Member :I want to ask a leading question: Should we not be broadcasting more to Russia than the Middle East, which may be a hopeless case?
Elisabeth Robson :I would be in favour of us broadcasting a lot more to more places. At its best, the BBC has had a very positive influence in a lot of places. I am sad to see the Eastern European services disappear so quickly; it is all very well to say that they are in the EU now and everything is all right, but it takes years to establish reliable structures and practices, and the withdrawal has been too hasty. I would not agree that it is hopeless broadcasting to the Arab world. It is difficult, but not hopeless. Even given the present government policy, it is no worse than broadcasting to the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
A real problem for broadcasters is that the objectives set by the management are often very short term, often because of targets set for them by those providing the funding. One really has to play a very long game in broadcasting, and it is depressing that this is not always understood. People can be accused of failures that are not real failures.
Audience Member :A problem with broadcasting is that one faces a completely different type of competition. The problems, which have been touched on already, of broadcasting into the Soviet Bloc when there are threats and censorship, are great. In the case of Iraq, if you compete with Al Jazeera, you are competing with former members of the BBC Arabic Service to an audience that is often very highly educated. The BBC also is only able to broadcast for 12 hours a day, so for at least half of the time it will be Al Jazeera that will be breaking the stories.
Elisabeth Robson :I agree with that wholeheartedly. There is no point broadcasting in half measures. If you are going to do it, it must be done properly. Broadcasting into the Soviet Union was always disadvantaged by the lack of a round-the-clock service.
Audience Member :One should always realise the budget for international broadcasting is very small is comparison with the budget of the Ministry of Defence. It may not be correct, but broadcasters like to think that if broadcasters reach the populations to which they are broadcasting and create a benign impression of Britain and the West, then the chance of having to use expensive tanks and aeroplanes is reduced. We did not, for instance, broadcast to Yugoslavia, and perhaps this could have been a prudent investment.
Audience Member :Do you think there is much chance of a reviving of these BBC services given the escalation of tensions between East and West?
Elisabeth Robson :You mean that as relations worsen with Russia, we will broadcast more? I regret to say that may happen, because it is often said in broadcasting circles that you need a small war. One does not want a large war, as the results can be so catastrophic, but a small war can keep the money coming in. This is a very cynical broadcasters' view. I would hope that the people who control the purse strings consider Russia to be sufficiently important for broadcasting not to be allowed to drift from lack of major funding. It is self-evident in my opinion, but others may not agree.
Audience Member :I agree with what you have just said about Russia. Its size, resources and geographical position mean it will be important whether it turns out well or badly.
You touched on the question of the Cold War. I have the impression that the World Service did not, in essence, change even after the end of the Cold War. The Service still aims to provide a reliable information service, which remains essential – whether it is about climate change or railway timetables. It was the particular role of the World Service to provide information that was more reliable than that available anywhere else. This is its continued role, in this long-term business.
Ian Redding : You talked about persuading the Ukrainian state broadcasting service to drop their objection to allowing the BBC to compete in the same market. What concessions or compromises, if any, did you make to gain their agreement?
Elisabeth Robson :It was quite straightforward in the end. It turned out that they wanted us to help them make some programmes. We settled on programmes teaching English on the radio, with Ukrainians doing a lot of the work. We paid for it, and this seemed to help them come to terms with the fact that we would be broadcasting. We also invited someone from the Ukrainian broadcasting company to the BBC's English summer school, which we ran for many years before axing it to save money. We invited them as guests for a couple of years, very successfully, before the policy was changed after the head of the Ukrainian State Broadcasting company sent his daughter, who came with no interest in lessons and wanted to have fun at somebody else's expense.
Chris Cviic : Elisabeth, you make me feel very old. You joined in 1969, just as I left the BBC, which gives me a sense of perspective.
Audience Member :Can you give more information about the current restrictions and problems related to broadcasting in Russia?
Audience Member : In theory, I am told, there are no restrictions. In practice, however, it seems, in Russia, the broadcasters are subject to very strict laws. Until August 2006 the BBC had very good partnerships which gave a good presence in major cities in the Russian Federation, reaching target audiences. However, I am reliably informed, that at least in one instance the licensing authority told one of the main partner company, in no uncertain terms, that they should stop "this Zionist, capitalist propaganda from spreading within the Russian Federation". The licence of this partner was withdrawn, and the BBC lost its major re-broadcasting facility. Incidentally, re-broadcasting is still officially banned in Russia, and foreign programmes cannot be rebroadcast, but can only be either "purchased" ("content provision") or produced "in partnership". (In the case of the partner who lost the licence, the BBC was a "content provider".)
The BBC had very good partnerships in Moscow and St. Petersburg. In St Petersburg the partner station was run by President Yeltsin's former spokesman. Having spoken with him recently, he reports that broadcasting in Russia is requiring more and more effort.