BBC – One Message, Two Voices

Globus (Zagreb) 20-09-1991

Croatia, too, had a 'Prague Spring'. This month, nearly 25 years later, the BBC appears to be recognising the 1967 declaration of Croatia's literary language. Christopher Long reports from London on the significance, if any, of the world service's Serbo-Croatian language split.

By Christopher Long

See Balkan Journalism Index

It was during last winter that the BBC's World Service first gave serious thought to splitting the Serbo-Croatian news service to Yugoslavia. In those exciting, adventurous days – just a year after the collapse of Eastern Europe's totalitarian regimes – it was good to be alive and to be a journalist at the imposing World Service headquarters at Bush House in Central London.

At last London's army of expatriate Central European journalists were free to report real news, momentous events and anticipate the consequences of the greatest mass revolution the world has ever seen. More important still, they could address audiences which were hungry for real news and at last free to listen with impunity. The corridors buzzed with exited voices in dozens of liberated languages and the airwaves of the world's most respected international broadcasting service hummed with enthusiasm for an uncertain but liberated future.

That was last winter. That was when the BBC could still consider the needs of a country called Yugoslavia. That was when Yugoslavia still existed. They were gentler, more positive days.

When the World Service splits its service to Serbs and Croats on September 29, 1991, it will be to a very different 'Yugoslavia'. The original reason for the split was largely technical. For decades the BBC has broadcast its multi-lingual, world-wide news service on a huge range of short-wave frequencies. But the reception quality of SW is notoriously bad compared with FM frequencies which are now standard throughout Europe.

The choice for the BBC has been a simple one: either to re-broadcast its programmes via satellite to an approved local FM broadcasting service which then relays the programmes on a low-power, local FM service; or, to acquire transmitters in the host nation and broadcast its own programmes on medium-wave. The problem with the second alternative is that many countries dislike foreign-owned transmitters on their soil and that MW frequencies are very crowded, expensive to operate and highly regulated by international agreements.

Technically, therefore, Yugoslavia was a prime candidate for an FM service, provided courtesy of local radio stations, always assuming that the programmes would be broadcast 'live' and unedited by the facilitator.

So much for the technology. Then there was the question of the ethnic market place.

The BBC World Service is a uniquely British concept. It had its origins in the days of the vast British Empire – on which the sun never set. It provided a radio service for scattered British communities around the world. During World War ll it had a more urgent task: providing news of the war in addition to brief, coded operational directives to partisans (including those in Yugoslavia) among hundreds of other allies, agents and resistants.

With the coming of peace in 1945 and the return to independence of Britain's empire, the World Service could no longer be a justifiable burden to the radio-licence payers in Britain (who couldn't hear it) and it was funded instead by the British Foreign Office which has only two powers over the service provided: first, choosing which languages are to be served; second, for how many hours the service is provided in each language. Editorially the World Service is supposed to be 100 per cent independent of any governmental or outside prejudicial influence. Such is the theory and such, the journalists will say, is the fact.

Nevertheless, it must have been the Foreign Office which granted, last winter, permission for the South-East Europe section of the World Service to divide the Serbs from the Croats linguistically. Was that a significant decision?

True, there are many Croats at the BBC, in their mid-40s today, who well remember the name Matica Hrvatska and the 17 institutions which risked so much to 'declare' the independent identity of the Croatian language. And if they believe that declaration was symbolic of greater aspirations to greater independence, they are busy enough in September 1991 reporting just such a 'greater independence' to match the Serbian desire for a 'Greater Serbia'.

To Anglo-Saxons, the potency of symbolism in the Slav mentality is very evident, but the apparent recognition of Croatia's language may, in all truth, owe more to technology than to any idea of political recognition.

The S-E European 'Yugoslav' news desk at the BBC is well aware of this. Serbs and Croats sit side-by-side with Slovenes, Bosnians and Montenegrins. They will continue to do so. They rely on Misha Glenny in Vienna and Zagreb and Jim Fish in Belgrade for regular reporting, in addition to a growing number of 'stringers' throughout Serbia and Croatia. Wire services and monitoring services add to the news diet. But, reporting as impartially as possible, it may be a Serb on duty when reports of a Croatian massacre come in, or a Croat on duty when reports arrive of mass Serbian demonstrations in Belgrade.

"At present we are bombarded by complaints of bias by both sides," says the BBC's Yugoslav editor, Maya Samolov. "So long as the criticism is equally strong and the words 'Ustacha' and 'Cetnik' are equally used to describe our biased reporting, we think we may be getting it about right."

"The situation [during the Balkan wars] is dreadful and we try very hard to be impartial," she adds, making it clear that her plans for the future are to make the news reporting more punchy and more condensed as well as including rather more coverage of life in Britain.

From September 29, Croats will find the BBC's reports on the 19, 22 and 25 metre bands between 13.00 and 13.15 hours (local time) and on the 31, 41 and 49 metre bands between 19.00 and 19.30 hours (local time). Serbs will find their language service on the 19, 22 and 25 metre bands between 12.30 and 12.45 hours (local time) and again on the 31, 41 and 49 metre bands between 18.00 and 18.30 hours (local time).

And before very long, the BBC hopes, the service will transfer, as planned, to FM local stations throughout Croatia and Serbia.

In the meantime the promise from the BBC is that the message to Serbs and Croats will be the same. The difference will be that the languages will be slightly different. That alone will be significant for many Croats – a step in the right direction.

Years ago a wise World Service editor gave me good advice: "Report the news! Tell me what you see, what you hear. Tell me who said what, and why. Who did what, and why. Report the news but never, never react to the news!"

A few days later I was looking at the massacred body of a black South African. I knew what I had seen. I stepped closer. A million flies flew away and the corpse was white.

At the BBC in London it's hard to step closer, hard to to tell whether the Serbo-Croatian corpse is entirely black or entirely white – and often hard not to react.

Instead, the greatest argument between Serbs and Croats on the 'Yugoslav' desk is wisely confined to dividing the office space between smokers and non-smokers.

Since this article was written the war in Croatia and Slovenia spread to Bosnia with catastrophic consequences. Six years after that the BBC World Service was still trying to resolve the dilemma of how to serve the audiences in the further fragmentation of the region and its languages. The widespread availability of cable and satellite TV had, however, transformed the position and, for good or ill, English had become the standard language for world-wide news and communication.

© (1991) Christopher Long. Copyright, Syndication & All Rights Reserved Worldwide.
The text and graphical content of this and linked documents are the copyright of their author and or creator and site designer, Christopher Long, unless otherwise stated. No publication, reproduction or exploitation of this material may be made in any form prior to clear written agreement of terms with the author or his agents.

Christopher Long

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