“The BBC gave me a lifeline as a child. It must be kept public”, The Guardian
By Nesrine Malik, Opinion, London, 10 Feb 2020
Those who lobby against the corporation’s service remit fail to understand its unique relationship with its audience
‘‘You’re mistaken if you think you can hand Margaret Thatcher a pearl-handled revolver and expect her to do the right thing. She’d shoot you with it.” As memory serves me, those were the words of a member of parliament being interviewed on the BBC World Service in November 1990. The programme was Newshour, and the presenter was Owen Bennett-Jones. I recall these details because the ousting of Thatcher was the first political event I tuned into properly as a child with an interest in politics living in a sub-Saharan African country with no access to media that covered current events.
Satellite dishes were prohibitively expensive, and apart from a short news bulletin on state-controlled TV there was no other source of news, let alone analysis – until I found the BBC World Service on shortwave radio. I started to haul the only portable radio in the house, a large battery-powered contraption with a long-bent aerial, everywhere I went, becoming aware of the dead zones in the house where the signal was weak, and making note of the times when the signal was strongest. Night-times were the worst. I would heave the radio into the bed and painstakingly tease the dial to find the crackling transmission from Bush House, able only to fall asleep when I managed to find the faint voices fading in and out of the crackle of white noise.
What was a pearl-handled revolver? Why would Thatcher shoot anyone with it? Over the next few days the BBC World Service’s team delivered an explanation of the metaphor, and the crisis in general, through coverage so rich and dense that I began to record it and listen back at a slower pace so I could make sense of it all.
In the following years the World Service took a child growing up in a poor and isolated country and delivered an incorporation into world events, not only through current affairs coverage but also music, features and drama. Bennett-Jones swept across the latest news in an hour with a sharp, intelligent bonhomie. Alistair Cooke’s avuncular dispatches from America offered gently humorous but profound post-cold war observations. In From Our Own Correspondent, BBC journalists managed in 15 minutes to take a part of the world unknown to me and paint an image of it in my head. The channel provided a refuge for me in times of domestic discord, company in stifling childhood isolation, and intellectual stimulation during long, maddening bouts of boredom. All for the price of a shortwave radio.