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Media, ethics, and journalism. What works. What doesn't.


Jeffrey Dvorkin

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The BBC from Bucharest to Tehran

In 1989, I was freelancing from Europe. It was the year the Berlin wall came down and a sense of imminent liberation had seized all of Europe. I reported from Prague and Budapest. When the Ceaucescu dictatorship in Romania was finally toppled on Christmas, 1989, I was back in Amsterdam, glued to my short wave radio listening to a new BBC World Service program called “Radio 648.”

“Radio 648" began in 1987 and was a creation of the Foreign Office – that part of the British government that is mostly about diplomacy. But it is the part of Whitehall that directly funds the World Service. It was a trilingual service - English, German and French. “648" referred to 648 khz on the medium wave band. The programming was the best of BBC programming – heavy on news, a bit of jazz, comedy and a few of those unique British cultural expressions like “Gardeners’ Question Time.”

The goal of “648" was simple – news with heavy doses of soft cultural propaganda to give the people in the Soviet bloc a taste of western values in general and British culture in particular. It did this in anticipation of, and encouragement for the fall of Communism. It worked better than anyone expected.

One of the BBC Radio reporters I listened for was Owen Bennett-Jones, who still works for the BBC. In 1989, he must have been very young. He was extremely good. When the revolution broke out in Romania, he reported live from the streets of Bucharest. Another BBC colleague was reporting from Timisoara, a town in western Romania. Their live reports gave a tension and a rhythm to the crowds in the streets culminating in the arrest and execution of Ceaucescu and his wife.

Some years later I was in Bucharest meeting reporters from Radio Romania. They confirmed what I suspected – that Bennett-Jones and his colleagues’ reports were crucial logistical elements that helped guide the street protests and keep the revolution in communication with itself.

Twenty one years later, the media is doing the same things. Only now in addition to the BBC, we have Facebook and Twitter. The fate of Iran, like Romania before it, is deeply media-dependent.

As for “Radio 648?” It was broadcast from southeastern England and was extremely popular among central and eastern Europeans. But it also earned a huge and significant domestic British audience.  It began taking listeners away from the “regular” BBC programs. After protests from BBC managers, it was silenced permanently in 1991.

1 comment:

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