Khadija Shireh is as upset as she is angry. “What does the BBC give our community?” she asks. The early Spring sunshine filters through the blinds in a modest office in the backstreets of Camden. Khadija Shireh is director of the British Somali Community. “The BBC is very restricted in what it offers us,” she complains. “But everyone must pay the fines if they are found without a television license.”
No-one knows exactly how many Somalis there are in the UK. In the 2001 census, a figure of 43,515 was recorded. Since then the crisis in Somalia has forced many thousands to flee from their homeland, and the total has almost doubled. The comparable figure for the 2011 census is not yet out, but first indications suggest that that there are 86,000 Somali speakers in England and Wales alone.
“Most came to Britain since the 1990s” says Mrs Shireh. “Perhaps 70 per cent of our people speak little or no English.”
“They don’t expect to be exempted from the BBC license, but what do they offer us,” she asks.
This is a problem across the many languages now spoken in Britain. The census shows (pdf) that 138,000 people living here speak no English at all.
Yet the BBC takes its £145.50 a year from them all, even if they cannot understand a word the BBC broadcasts.
Compare their situation with the indigenous population of Britain that speaks languages other than English. The Scottish Gaelic speakers, of whom there were 31,000 in 2001 (no figures for 2011 have yet been released) have their own dedicated radio station, Radio nan Gaidheal. This received £6 million in 2012, according to the BBC’s accounts (pdf).
The 2011 census showed that 475,000 people speak Welsh (pdf). The BBC provides them with Radio Cymru and the television services of S4C. Together these cost £48.1m.
So the Scottish Gaelic speaking community receives a subsidy from the BBC of £194 per person. The figure for each Welsh speaker is just over £100 a year. Very few of the Welsh or Gaelic speakers will not understand English, so perhaps it is legitimate to describe them as being ‘super-served’ by the BBC. They have their own language broadcasts as well as the English output to watch, listen to and enjoy. Compare their provision with the non-existent offer for Britain’s immigrant community, many of whom cannot even understand the standard BBC English radio and television broadcasts.
Replying to the New Statesman’s queries about this disparity, the BBC issued a statement suggesting that British Somalis should depend on the internet. “The BBC Somali website is accessible to audiences around the world, and includes audio and video content…The Somali service's wealth of discussion and phone-in programmes involves callers and participants from everywhere, certainly including the UK. BBC World Service's multi-lingual, multiplatform international news content is accessible and enjoyed by UK-based audiences, including, of course, Somali-speakers.”
An internet based service, aimed at Somalia and not at the British Somali experience seems a paltry return for the £145.50 license fee. The reply contains no suggestion that the BBC is prepared to assist British Somalis, many of whom are among the poorest people in the UK, with broadband provision or any other means of accessing the internet.
How can this chasm be narrowed? Mrs Shireh would like the BBC to establish a Somali radio station to serve her community. “It would really help, particularly with the young people to improve their chances of getting jobs,” she says. But with over 300 languages currently spoken in London alone, providing for all of their needs would be a tall order.
So what are the alternatives? One would be to broadcast the World Service’s 27 languages available on local radio in the areas in which the communities are most densely situated. But even this would leave the vast majority of immigrant groups without a service.
Another would be to help cut the cost of the range of satellite television programmes they listen to. For the Somalis these include Royal TV, Somali TV and Universal. It costs around £200 to buy the equipment needed to listen to the output, says Mrs Shireh. The BBC might use its commercial muscle to negotiate a better deal for its Somali license fee payers, by buying the equipment in bulk.
A similar offer could be made to the other major communities now resident in the UK – like the Poles, who now number 546,000 or the Panjabi speakers, who are 273, 000 strong.
The BBC argues – correctly – that the position of Scottish Gaelic and Welsh is unique. “We have particular responsibilities around the indigenous languages of the UK, for which there is no provision internationally.” Cutting their services, expensive as they are, would be a devastating blow to their communities. But their special status cannot be used as a reason for the BBC to turn its back on the much larger, more vulnerable immigrant populations that now make Britain their home.