BBC’s emergency Gaza radio broadcasts show why World Service mustn’t rely on digital technology


The BBC has just announced that it will start an emergency radio service for listeners in Gaza. Daily news bulletins will be produced in London and Cairo by BBC News Arabic, the corporation’s Arabic-language television service.

The radio service will broadcast on medium wave, initially with a single afternoon programme from November 3, and an additional morning programme from November 10. The BBC’s stated aim is to provide “vital news daily to the people of Gaza during this time of urgent need”, including practical information about where to access shelter, food and water supplies.

Why would people in Gaza want to listen to the BBC? Partly because of the BBC’s reputation for providing trustworthy news for a global audience. Reuters Institute research suggests that the BBC remains the most trusted news source in the UK itself, and that in the US the BBC is trusted more than any domestic national media network. But this analysis does not extend to cover the views of audiences in the Middle East.

Probably more important is the desire for news and information after disruption to local radio services after transmitters were destroyed, through targeted strikes or collateral damage. Digital information services are also liable to shutdowns, due to damage and the strategic closing of internet and phone networks by the Israeli military.

The BBC’s News Arabic television service is also vulnerable to these threats. Information blockades are a big part of the information war that is currently being waged.

The BBC has turned to old-fashioned medium wave as the best means to provide civilians in Gaza with news and information. All that is required to listen is a cheap analogue radio set. These can be battery powered and operate even without mains electricity, another crucial consideration in a warzone in which many people have been displaced. This method of delivering radio is therefore much more resilient than digital audio broadcasts.

Read more:
BBC at 100: the future for global news and challenges facing the World Service

To deliver its emergency radio service the BBC will use transmitters already operating in the region, broadcasting material produced in London and Cairo. Medium-wave signals (AM) can travel for hundreds of miles, so the BBC does not need access to a transmitter in Gaza itself (this is why the BBC is not broadcasting on FM, which has a much shorter range). The BBC will probably use a transmitter near Limassol, Cyprus, which it has been used to relay services to the Middle East before.

Communications infrastructure has been damaged by bombing in Gaza, making it difficult for residents to access news and information.

What works in wartime

Traditionally, international broadcasters such as the BBC have used short-wave radio to reach listeners. The BBC reactivated its historic cold war short-wave radio services to Russia and Ukraine in 2022, to overcome wartime disruption and Russian restrictions placed on digital content. Establishing a “pop-up” service for listeners in Sudan in early 2023, as that country teetered on the edge of civil war, the BBC used short-wave as well as digital and social media platforms.

However, short-wave listeners need more specialist radio sets. These are probably harder to come by in Gaza. Since the beginning of the cold war, the BBC has often secured time on local medium-wave transmitters to relay its programmes to distant audiences, a crucial way of supplementing short-wave services.

The return to medium wave underlines the dangers of the recent move by many international broadcasters away from radio and towards digital platforms. The internet is a great way to reach audiences in peacetime, or those living in places where the state and the military are not attempting to restrict internet access and content. But in times of crisis, digital connections are easily severed. Analogue radio is not an obsolete technology.

All this offers the BBC and the UK government a number of lessons. In the case of the BBC, the move to digital has in part been driven by a desire to innovate and harness new technologies. The transition has helped the World Service reach an unprecedented number of people, an estimated audience of 364m each week. But the move to digital has also been motivated by severe cuts to BBC funding. It has been accompanied by the closing down of foreign-language radio services, even though these still had audiences – particularly in times of crisis or government-imposed media crackdowns. As a result, while the BBC’s global audience may have grown, it may have lost key listeners in certain parts of the world, particularly among those who do not speak English, or have digital access.

The BBC’s commitment to broadcasting in Arabic stretches back some 85 years. It launched a short-wave BBC Arabic Service as early as 1938. This was the first ever regular BBC foreign-language radio service, established to counter anti-British propaganda broadcast in Arabic from Mussolini’s Italy. The BBC Arabic Service was conceived of as a tool of persuasion, subtly serving British foreign policy interests. During and after the second world war, it played a crucial role in presenting news and comment on international affairs, from a British perspective, to listeners across the Middle East.

The BBC Arabic Service survived until January 2023. It was then closed down in the face of severe government-imposed restrictions on BBC revenues. Unpredictable top-up grants from the government have kept some BBC foreign-language services going on digital platforms, but radio services for international listeners – not just those in the Middle East – have been dramatically pruned.

All this now looks extremely short-sighted, a self-inflicted diminution of British overseas influence, resulting from the more general hostility of the Conservative government and its supporters towards the BBC.

Why does the BBC need to establish emergency stations for listeners in Sudan and Gaza at short notice? Because its peacetime ability to broadcast in Arabic, and in other languages, has been drastically reduced. The Gaza radio service may not be a triumph for British “soft power”, but rather a sign of the hollowing out of the BBC’s capacity to speak to the world on Britain’s behalf.

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