What can be done about the BBC’s raw deal for migrants?

Welsh and Scottish Gaelic have their own language broadcasts as well as the English output, but communities like British Somalis receive nothing, despite paying the same license fee.

 

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.

BBC Broadcasting House. Photograph: Getty Images

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. With Paul Holden, he is the author of Who Rules South Africa?

Photo: Getty
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Ken Livingstone says publicly what many are saying privately: tomorrow belongs to John McDonnell

The Shadow Chancellor has emerged as a frontrunner should another Labour leadership election happen. 

“It would be John.” Ken Livingstone, one of Jeremy Corbyn’s most vocal allies in the media, has said publicly what many are saying privately: if something does happen to Corbyn, or should he choose to step down, place your bets on John McDonnell. Livingstone, speaking to Russia Today, said that if Corbyn were "pushed under a bus", John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, would be the preferred candidate to replace him.

Even among the Labour leader’s allies, speculation is rife as to if the Islington North MP will lead the party into the 2020 election. Corbyn would be 71 in 2020 – the oldest candidate for Prime Minister since Clement Attlee lost the 1955 election aged 72.

While Corbyn is said to be enjoying the role at present, he still resents the intrusion of much of the press and dislikes many of the duties of the party leader. McDonnell, however, has impressed even some critics with his increasingly polished TV performances and has wowed a few sceptical donors. One big donor, who was thinking of pulling their money, confided that a one-on-one chat with the shadow chancellor had left them feeling much happier than a similar chat with Ed Miliband.

The issue of the succession is widely discussed on the left. For many, having waited decades to achieve a position of power, pinning their hopes on the health of one man would be unforgivably foolish. One historically-minded trade union official points out that Hugh Gaitskell, at 56, and John Smith, at 55, were 10 and 11 years younger than Corbyn when they died. In 1994, the right was ready and had two natural successors in the shape of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown in place. In 1963, the right was unprepared and lost the leadership to Harold Wilson, from the party's centre. "If something happens, or he just decides to call it a day, [we have to make sure] it will be '94 not '63," they observed.

While McDonnell is just two years younger than Corbyn, his closest ally in politics and a close personal friend, he is seen by some as considerably more vigorous. His increasingly frequent outings on television have seen him emerge as one of the most adept media performers from the Labour left, and he has won internal plaudits for his recent tussles with George Osborne over the tax bill.

The left’s hopes of securing a non-Corbyn candidate on the ballot have been boosted in recent weeks. The parliamentary Labour party’s successful attempt to boot Steve Rotheram off the party’s ruling NEC, while superficially a victory for the party’s Corbynsceptics, revealed that the numbers are still there for a candidate of the left to make the ballot. 30 MPs voted to keep Rotheram in place, with many MPs from the left of the party, including McDonnell, Corbyn, Diane Abbott and John Trickett, abstaining.

The ballot threshold has risen due to a little-noticed rule change, agreed over the summer, to give members of the European Parliament equal rights with members of the Westminster Parliament. However, Labour’s MEPs are more leftwing, on the whole, than the party in Westminster . In addition, party members vote on the order that Labour MEPs appear on the party list, increasing (or decreasing) their chances of being re-elected, making them more likely to be susceptible to an organised campaign to secure a place for a leftwinger on the ballot.

That makes it – in the views of many key players – incredibly likely that the necessary 51 nominations to secure a place on the ballot are well within reach for the left, particularly if by-election selections in Ogmore, where the sitting MP, is standing down to run for the Welsh Assembly, and Sheffield Brightside, where Harry Harpham has died, return candidates from the party’s left.

McDonnell’s rivals on the left of the party are believed to have fallen short for one reason or another. Clive Lewis, who many party activists believe could provide Corbynism without the historical baggage of the man himself, is unlikely to be able to secure the nominations necessary to make the ballot.

Any left candidate’s route to the ballot paper runs through the 2015 intake, who are on the whole more leftwing than their predecessors. But Lewis has alienated many of his potential allies, with his antics in the 2015 intake’s WhatsApp group a sore point for many. “He has brought too much politics into it,” complained one MP who is also on the left of the party. (The group is usually used for blowing off steam and arranging social events.)

Lisa Nandy, who is from the soft left rather than the left of the party, is widely believed to be in the running also, despite her ruling out any leadership ambitions in a recent interview with the New Statesman.However, she would represent a break from the Corbynite approach, albeit a more leftwing one than Dan Jarvis or Hilary Benn.

Local party chairs in no doubt that the shadow chancellor is profiling should another leadership election arise. One constituency chair noted to the New Statesman that: “you could tell who was going for it [last time], because they were desperate to speak [at events]”. Tom Watson, Caroline Flint, Chuka Umunna, Yvette Cooper, Andy Burnham and Liz Kendall all visited local parties across the country in preparation for their election bids in 2015.

Now, speaking to local party activists, four names are mentioned more than any other: Dan Jarvis, currently on the backbenches, but in whom the hopes – and the donations – of many who are disillusioned by the current leadership are invested, Gloria De Piero, who is touring the country as part of the party’s voter registration drive, her close ally Jon Ashworth, and John McDonnell.

Another close ally of Corbyn and McDonnell, who worked closely on the leadership election, is in no doubt that the shadow chancellor is gearing up for a run should the need arise.  “You remember when that nice Mr Watson went touring the country? Well, pay attention to John’s movements.”

As for his chances of success, McDonnell may well be even more popular among members than Corbyn himself. He is regularly at or near the top of LabourList's shadow cabinet rankings, and is frequently praised by members. Should he be able to secure the nominations to get on the ballot, an even bigger victory than that secured by Corbyn in September is not out of the question.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.