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 Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.