On January 26, the BBC, Britain’s public broadcasting network, announced that it would be downscaling its World Service, redistributing its content online, closing down as many as 200 sites and discontinuing altogether five foreign services in a cost-cutting move that ultimately will save the corporation 46 million GBP and that will cost up to 650 people their jobs. The strategy, to take effect from March 25, 2011, will bring an end to the BBC World Service in Albanian, Macedonian, Serbian, Portuguese for Africa and, crucially, English for the Caribbean.
The initiative comes as a consequence of the austerity measures adopted by the British Government, who announced it would cease funding the World Service and reduce its grant to the BBC by 16% over the next four years. Although the BBC is not directly subsidized by the British Government, it receives in full the roughly 3.5 billion GBP British households pay for their TV licenses. Additionally, the BBC had received until now other grants, such as a 272 million GBP aid from the Foreign Office for the running of the World Service. This has kept the emblematic broadcasting service of the BBC free of commercials to this date.
Regardless of whether British audiences will still be able to enjoy their favorite BBC shows without being fed private commercials, they will certainly not be able to access a section devoted to Caribbean issues specifically – a service particularly prized by the vast portion of the population with Caribbean roots. Indeed, the largest number of visitors to www.bbc.co.uk/caribbean originate from Canada, USA and the UK – not from Caribbean nations. Nevertheless, within the Caribbean region, the role of the BBC, once the broadcasting King of the islands and the most direct link to the Mother Country – remains enormously valuable as a relatively independent source of information devoid of the internal conflicts and national biases that often cloud reports produced by local news agencies in the Caribbean.
The message coming from the Conservative-led coalition Government in Britain seems to be one of further distancing from the former colonies, reinforcing the tendency prevalent in the last quarter of the last century, when the United States increasingly became the dominating influence in the region. Although the relevance of British culture varies substantially from island to island in the West Indies, the decision by the BBC to sever its ties with one of its most devoted audiences simply evidences a latent tendency within the higher echelons of British policy to withdraw from the Caribbean.
Another instance of this tendency can be seen in a similar decision by the Ministry of Defence, which, faced with the same kind of expenditure cuts as the BBC, plans to withdraw its warships from the Caribbean region. Used primarily for drug-busting operations and for post-disaster relief activities, British destroyers and frigates constitute a major part of the regional battle against drug trafficking. Faced with the restrictions brought about by the global crisis, it seems obvious that the British Government no longer considers it a priority to provide a unifying force to stay in touch with its former colonies and its present Overseas Territories in the area.
However, the message coming from Whitehall is anything but consistent: coupled with these signs of distancing from the region comes the general posture of the Foreign Office through its representatives in the Overseas Territories, who, almost without exception, have seen their relationships with the local governments of the Territories in the Caribbean deteriorate substantially. Sparked, perhaps, by the constitutional crisis in Turks and Caicos, and certainly fuelled by the reticence the British Government has shown to bail out the impoverished economies of the islands, a budgetary crisis has now arisen in Anguilla, with very similar situations developing in Montserrat and Cayman Islands. And yet, far from allowing the local governments to incur in disproportionate debt, to find their own ways out of the holes (or further into them), to leave ‘each to their own’, the British have remained adamant that the public finances of their Overseas Territories should be properly sanitized, almost at all costs. This situation has sparked loud cries for greater self-governance and even independence in Anguilla, for instance, but the British, so keen to pull the plug on their military presence and media coverage of the region, have made it anything but easy for the islands to move away from their colonial master of old.
Indeed it looks like Britain has engaged, not for the first time, in a political game of cat and mouse with its Overseas Territories in the Caribbean. Unfortunately, however, with the puzzling decision to drop the highly reputable Caribbean Service, the true losers in this recent power struggle are none other than the public in general. The onus is now on the private sector, of course, to take the opportunity afforded by this regrettable situation and to create a public space of interaction and information to fill the vacuum that, should nothing change from now to March 25, will be left by the disappearance of BBC Caribbean.
PUBLISHED BY THE WEEKENDER SUPPLEMENT OF SINT MAARTEN’S THE DAILY HERALD ON SATURDAY MARCH 4, 2011.