The release of the BBC documentary ‘India: The Modi Question’ led to its local offices being raided by tax officials.
February 27, 2023 6:00 am(Updated 6:01 am)
While Boris Johnson showed undisguised relish in flagrantly attacking the BBC, the Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, now subtly undermines the century-old institution by insinuation and neglect.
After the BBC’s Delhi offices were raided by Indian tax officials this month following a BBC documentary criticising Narendra Modi, Mr Sunak leapt to defend his Indian counterpart. “I’m not sure I agree at all with the characterisation,” he told MPs, when asked about the programme.
Mr Sunak’s decision to side with a powerful world leader, rather than defend the integrity and independence of the national broadcaster, was expedient.
It showed no regard for BBC staff interrogated for up to 60 hours by Indian investigators, who were at BBC offices for three days and searched laptops and mobiles in what I believe is a retaliatory action.
Worse, Mr Sunak’s implication that the BBC’s reporting was flawed or biased comes as the corporation’s staff face threats to their personal safety and challenges to their credibility from authoritarian regimes around the world.
In Moscow, where the BBC Russian Service once fielded a large team, a lone correspondent, Steve Rosenberg, bravely works under tight restrictions with a producer and office manager.
The BBC has shipped out the rest of his colleagues to Riga, Latvia, for their personal safety. Many are Russian nationals and some had to leave their families behind. The World Service continues its Ukrainian Service, but much of the staff has been moved to Poland following Russia’s invasion.
Russian audiences still consume BBC content via VPNs (virtual private networks), YouTube and the Telegram social network, but Moscow has blocked its television output, website and most of its social channels.
This is partly a response to Ofcom’s revocation of the licence of the Russian state-funded channel RT last year, following breaches of impartiality rules in covering the war.
In Beijing, Australian reporter Stephen McDonell is the BBC’s only representative in mainland China, where BBC content is blocked. World Service journalists work from Hong Kong. Ofcom has revoked the licence of China’s state broadcaster, CGTN.
The United Nations has voiced “grave concern” over Iranian government intimidation of staff working for BBC News Persian, which is blocked in Iran but can be accessed via satellite.
BBC journalists, who must operate remotely from London, suffer online death threats, freezing of their financial assets and harassment of their families.
Iran accuses BBC Persian of backing terrorism. As the service seeks balance in covering anti-government protests, it is also attacked by regime opponents who brand it “Ayatollah BBC”.
Now BBC Persian radio is being closed, a victim of £30m budget cuts to the World Service that have already claimed BBC Arabic radio, which shut down last month after 85 years on air.
Forced to operate with less money following a freeze of the licence fee, the BBC is merging BBC World television with the BBC News channel, a risky move which could alienate both domestic and overseas audiences. It has retained its 42 language services but is focusing on digital output. As the BBC shrinks globally, RT and CGTN expand.
Strong investigative work is seen as key to maintaining the BBC’s impact internationally. The BBC News Africa Eye team last week uncovered sexual abuse on Kenyan tea farms linked to Lipton and PG Tips. By using local journalists, the BBC gains insights and access that might otherwise be denied to a foreign outlet.
Its Russian and Arabic teams combined to expose Wagner Group mercenaries operating in Libya in 2021, well before the Ukraine war.
Such investigations can be beyond local news media. They inspire journalists around the world who work independently, often in the face of repressive regimes. But as we see with the Modi film, investigative journalism can provoke a furious backlash.
The BBC was accused of being “the most corrupt organisation in the world” by a spokesman for India’s ruling BJP party. One Indian minister said the BBC was seeking to influence the outcome of India’s 2024 election.
The documentary, which examined Mr Modi’s role as chief minister of Gujarat during sectarian riots that cost thousands of lives, featured BJP figures but also an unpublished British government report claiming that Mr Modi was responsible for the violence.
Even though it no longer receives Foreign Office funding, the BBC is still seen in some parts of the world as an arm of British government. Mr Sunak’s slight on its journalism is, at least, evidence that this is untrue. It is not the job of the BBC to suck up to global leaders, no matter their significance as geopolitical allies or trading partners of the UK.
Trust in the BBC’s reporting of the world is – together with global interest in the Royal Family and the Premier League – one of the pillars of the UK’s international standing. The Prime Minister would do well to remember that.