“She sings a song
— short change, don’t make it long
Keep last night’s dream
For Freud, spare me
I get bored fit to scream.
Now that all bets
Are off, you wish
We were still counting sunsets”
From I Bit Anjali by Bachchoo
The voice of reason, the voice of neutral truth, the investigative counter to our era of fake news and social-media venom — which is what the glorious British Broadcasting Corporation, dedicated to inform, educate and entertain, should be. Britain’s politicians routinely accuse the BBC of bias. My left-wing friends and my right-wing acquaintances regularly rail against the stances adopted in questioning and reporting by the very accomplished Laura Kuenssberg, the BBC’s political reporter who steers expertly through the complexities of contemporary British politics. Indian audiences have the benefit of the BBC’s World Service and Newsday and can today pick up on-line all BBC output. One of these, probably not much subscribed to, except in a couple of areas in India’s Punjab, is the BBC Radio’s Asian Network. The Beeb is constantly battling to keep its sources and levels of funding and to compete with the plethora of rival channels. The Beeb, as with any broadcasting or media outlet, is guided by the viewing or listening figures attracted to its output. But, additionally or uniquely, the BBC with its public service remit, has to look beyond audience figures to provide quality or necessary programmes. So in 2010, in its review of expenditure the Beeb proposed to axe its Asian Network. It was spending £7.5million annually on it and attracting a weekly average of 477,000 listeners. The axe was vigorously opposed. Here was a service that had to be maintained in the interests of “diversity”. The protests worked. The BBC reprieved the network and asked it to economise on its budgets and to endeavour to increase its listener figures.
So larger audiences and smaller budgets — a more-for-less statistical injunction with no analysis of why the network was failing to get larger audiences or any regard for what the network was doing. The latest media interest in the minority radio channel has been stimulated by scandal. One of its disc jockeys, Tommy Sandhu, 40, has been suspended from the network for being part of a WhatsApp group of lads — two producers on the network and one other DJ — who posted nasty racist, homophobic, anti-Pakistani comments and a series of sexually explicit filthy posts about a female producer on BBC’s Radio 1. Sandhu’s group was not simply indulging in social-media trivia. Their posts violated the codes of conduct expected of BBC employees, referred to their Muslim colleagues and the potential Muslim audience for a national broadcasting network as “Pakis”. One post proposed keeping Pakistani musicians and artists off some of the network’s programmes.
Through a blunder, these posts were sent to a network office laptop and were seen by Amanpreet Kaur, a producer who was aghast at the nasty, sexist remarks directed at her and other female members of the network. She brought the cabal’s actionable attitudes and bullying remarks, including those which affected the policy of the network towards its potential audience, to official notice.
The BBC suspended two of the Indian-origin gang of four and instituted an inquiry. The inquiry will, of course, examine the structures and biases within the BBC unit which allowed people with these dispositions and opinions to be promoted to positions of influence in the network. What it won’t do, and what a further fundamental inquiry ought to do, is to look at the output of the network, its relationship to the needs, wants, tastes, demands, cultural structure, religious diversity, age range, country of emigrant origin and relationship of the exclusive culture of the Asian communities to mainstream and “other” Britain.
The latest statistics show that for the £7.5 million spent on the network it gets 632,000 listeners a week. This is certainly an improvement on the 2010 audience figure but does it do what an Asian network of the BBC ought to be doing? A quick glance through the names of its presenters, producers and other staff indicates that there is a distinct imbalance in the “diversity” that such a network ought to represent. Most blatantly, there is a very strong contingent of Indian Punjabis running the show, despite the fact that the potential audience consists of a much larger number of people of Pakistani Punjabi and Mirpuri origins. Are the DJs all Bollywood and Bhangra oriented? What qualifications does one have, or what criteria as a broadcaster does one have to fulfil to serve and innovate on the network? These questions and many more should be asked if the Asian Network is to serve the potential audiences of multicultural Britain. The specialist Asian video channels and the minority commercial radio channels that broadcast to local British Asian communities cater for very specific tastes of their very narrow audiences. The Asian Network of the BBC ought to undertake, as far as is feasible, to bypass the narrow tastes of narrow segments of the population catered for by these channels and instead be the instrument of nurturing the multicultural facets of Britain. As commissioning editor for multicultural programmes on Channel 4 for 14 years, I wasn’t given but assumed a clear and I hope multifaceted brief.
I am convinced that the Asian Network could with an intimacy, rigour and uninhibitedness which other networks may not possess, observe and investigate the impenetrable and increasingly isolated Asian communities of Britain. It might have told us, in some broadcasting format, for instance, that there was an unnoticed ambience within such communities which could induce five schoolgirls of high academic achievement to secretly abscond to Syria to become jihadi brides. One of the tests a revamped Asian network should pass is apart from its loyal audiences, attracting a demographic of Asian and non-Asian listeners who turn to it from commitment or to hear authoritative opinions on culture, society, politics and anything else.