You can listen to Radio Three on a laptop anywhere these days, or run Five Live through a Sky digibox in, say, the Dordogne. In the days before this was possible, it was the World Service that kept hundreds of thousands of people from acute information-deficit disorder if they happened to stray beyond the range of the home service. In sub-Saharan Africa, a stone's throw nowadays from a modern, multicultural city like London, the BBC was happy at first to sing the praises of the old country - and the colonies - in a schoolmasterly, district-commissioner sort of way. The first African radio station in the Empire Service, as it was known, was set up in the Gold Coast, now Ghana, in 1935. The wind of change was in those days only an invigorating breeze on the exposed parts between sock-tops and shorts, but when independence became the order of the day, the World Service talked it up with generosity and commitment. Then, as one setback followed another in Africa, Bush House, like a serene young chorister, tried in vain to hit the top A of political correctness. But its voice had already broken and the flow of intelligent, disabused journalism from the field was unstoppable. To their credit, programme makers and executives took their reporters on trust.
LRB 31 July 2008 | PDF Download