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On Point

The BBC Weapon of Mass Instruction

by Austin Bay
November 20, 2002Afghan war when I had the chance to meet a "field-grade special operations officer" recently returned from the combat zone.

Recent events hung heavy in his eyes. He'd been in the Himalayas -- and no, I couldn't ask and didn't ask for longitude and latitude.

Our conversation, however, did have one laugh-line. "These tribesmen, sir," the officer told me, "they all listen to the BBC." He was pleased, but also a little astonished. He shook his head, and the grin broke out. "They don't believe anything put out by the Taliban (government). They're talking to us about what they hear on BBC. The tribes know what's going on."

I replied, kidding him, "Are we surprised?"

I really wasn't that blase. I was impressed, once again, by the power of "the Beeb."

The United Kingdom provides fighter-bombers and ground troops to fight Al Qaeda and Saddam, but in many ways the BBC is Britain's most potent contribution to not only the current war effort but the world as a whole, which is why we should collectively complain when myopic Brit budgeteers propose cutting World Service operations. That's a pence rich, pound poor bad idea if there ever was one.

Call BBC World Service Western civilization's WMI -- Weapon of Mass Instruction -- but the reason it works is credibility, not megawatts or megabucks.

World Service broadcasts in 43 languages. Even Earth's hard corners have portable radios galore. Address people in their own language and provide a program that examines local and regional issues, and for a while you'll draw an audience -- but it takes credibility to keep it.

Credence and credibility, however, are earned, not invented. Earning those spurs means telling the truth as best a human organization can, when truth hurts as well as when it helps. It means addressing with dedicated accuracy local issues, from the Congo basin to Kabul, and doing so hour by hour, update by update.

Tell the Big Lie, Hitler's propagandist Josef Goebbels advised, and tell it often. But the good news is, on a planet where individual, choice-producing communication technology proliferates, the small, steady truth-with-a-little-t ultimately overwhelms the big spin-jobs, conspiracy theories and prevarications. Eventually, the man with crops withering from drought no longer listens to the government who assures him it's raining.

In the long haul, truth penetrates. It happened in Eastern Europe during the Cold War, where the BBC and Radio Free Europe -- aided by rock and roll -- proved more powerful than communist state agitprop. In Afghanistan's isolated valleys, villages and mountains hiding herdsmen and guerrilla armies, the bone-tired officer said tribesmen he'd just met "know what's going on."

That's information penetration as a positive, both for tribes seeking to control their own destiny and American commandos making contact. Information, cultural and technological-penetration issues, however, also lie at the roots of Osama bin Laden's terror. Islamists abhor the cultural and political effects of the BBC, rock music and Hollywood. Autocrats everywhere hate criticism.

Are Hollywood "values" anathema to traditional societies? Sure, lasciviousness and pulp are anathema to American society. However, many people -- in the Middle East, in Africa -- will tell you in a whisper they prefer Hollywood to government-written soap operas. Choice has political appeal.

For people living in an oppressed or corrupt society, the truth can whet demand for change. When demands go unrealized, people tantalized feel denied. Local autocrats play on that frustration, and attempt to shift blame for lack of local change from themselves to the United States and the West. Sometimes they succeed, though BBC World Service covers that political judo trick, as well.

Himalayan trust in the BBC's factual reporting, however, is bad news for anti-Western multiculturalists, particularly the Marx-drenched dolts in American academia who argue that "cultures erect their own unique truth" and that the BBC is "colonizing the minds" of "other peoples." What garbage. People know what's what. Drought-wracked farmers know it ain't raining. Unfortunately, too many people on this planet still live in hellholes where speaking freely gets them killed.

Truth alone does not make a people free, but even in Afghanistan, it's a big leg up when building a better nation.

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