Global waning

The World Service is being dismantled. Does nobody care?

World of Music
BBC World Service

Saturday night on the World Service and the presenter Mark Coles is lining up a playlist for his show, "with songs from South Korea, the American South, France via Greece, a song recorded in a Nashville church, some sad Portuguese fado and some Jamaican dub sent in by a listener. That's what I call all over the place. In the nicest possible way . . ."

Who could not cherish Mark Coles? Never, with him, the keenie urgency of the 6 Music-ers, arranging their bottle tops and Elbow remixes like bowerbirds. A comprehensive absence, too, of the Ozymandias-like sigh of the world music professional. Instead, an amiable vividness, an entirely unique radio steel - as thin and magic as water.

Did you know they are going to scrap his world music show? The official line from the BBC is that management are "engaging with the Foreign Office" (which funds the WS) as "part of the government's 2010 spending review", and things are still firmly at consultation stage, but I have it on good authority that World of Music is coming off air in March.

I hate to slump anyone in the gloom of a flash-forward, and particularly one in which all the worst premonitions come true, but it's clear that unsustainable cuts will be made to the WS come next financial year - and yet there will be a complete absence of the fandango attending the proposed abolition of the relatively unimportant 6 Music.

I particularly cherish this line from the BBC press office: "the World Service has a strong record of efficiency and cost management". For that, read "has been substantially dismantled without much protest". Already, the dedicated film programme and various religious programmes on the station are gone, the Proms are pencilled to go, and Wimbledon coverage, too (neither confirmed, but mooted at a recent meeting). Be warned, something terrible is happening: the World Service is being pared back to a rolling news channel. Which is precisely what a further 25 per cent cut to the already lean station would entail - a fundamental change in the service it provides.

Currently, the WS modestly goes about its business, and partly because of its modesty it will die. The WS has never beaten its own drum properly - with the exception of an advertising campaign a couple of years back, during which time Nelson Mandela and the Dalai Lama hailed the station for its value to their sanity. (There was even a lovely tub-thumping display in the lobby of Bush House. It's now gone - replaced with a plasma screen that repeats world weather.)

On the few occasions I have presented programmes for the WS myself, and happened to spend time in the building, the station's gob­smacking reach was never once in my hearing pushed to PRs - it was never stressed, for example, that the station attracts a weekly audience of 241 million people across the world. Two hundred and forty-one million. Or that it has more than 2,000 partner radio stations globally. That more people are listening to it in the United States, say, or Tanzania, than ever before. It was almost as if mentioning this kind of thing would imply a horrid self-infatuation, or bullying, even.

And thus, there now descends on our most valuable station, our David and Goliath combined, an air of doomed civility.

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 September 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Catholicism in crisis

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How will future videogame makers design a grand strategy game about the 21st century?

With the diminishing power of nation states, and the lack of conventional warfare, what would a 21st-century grand strategy game look like?

In the world of historical strategy games, it always seems clear how to win. Paint the map your colour. Raise your flag over the capitals of your rivals. Pave the streets of your cities with gold. Games based around statecraft in olden times will tend to have diverse objectives, they usually focus on the greatness of a nation in the traditional senses of the word: military might, technological advancement, religious and cultural hegemony. These same priorities hold up from the times of the Roman Republic to the Cold War.

Yet if games designers in the future were to look at the world of today, how would they interpret the actions of modern governments? Do the same goals as before apply or have we moved on? Are the objectives of contemporary societies different, and if so, just what would a player in a game of 21st-century grand strategy be trying to achieve?

One thing is for sure, the conventional measures of success in historical grand strategy games don’t stack up so easily in a modern setting.

War, for instance, has always been a staple part of historical games and it remains a preoccupation of contemporary society too. In the 15 years of the 21st century, Britain has invaded two countries, conducted armed interventions in three more and is even now lining up the procurement of new fighter jets, new aircraft carriers and new nuclear weapons at incredible expense. So we can safely say we do not live in a peaceful age.

But despite having all this firepower and the political will to bring it to bear at the drop of a dossier, war doesn’t seem to serve Her Majesty’s Government in the way it does in either the history books or the strategy games. There is no territory to be won and no rival great powers being thwarted – only air strikes, occupations and teetering puppet governments.

Indeed the only country whose military adventures bear any resemblance to the old-timey way of doing things is Russia, with Putin perhaps the last of the breed of world leaders who still thinks swapping out the flags on municipal buildings constitutes a legitimate redrawing of national boundaries. Given his famous distrust for technology it seems quite likely he didn’t get the tersely worded Tweet from Obama about how that kind of thing isn’t supposed to work anymore.

On the economic side of things the approaches opted for by governments today don’t fit with the historical mind set either. Nations are no longer trying to get rich for their own sake. Privatisation relinquishes the assets of the state in return for a temporary financial gain and long term loss of revenue. Deregulation and poor tax enforcement bleeds capital overseas. It is here we see perhaps the key difference between games where you play as The State itself and real countries, countries run by people who have bank balances of their own and competing party financiers to appease.

The idea of running a country for the purpose of making that country wealthier and then reinvesting that wealth back into the country by developing assets and infrastructure has gone out of the window. Simultaneously both the leftwing model of a state run for the benefit of its citizens and the rightwing ideal of a country mastering its economy to become a more powerful force on the world stage have been quietly phased out. Outsourcing and tax havens suggest that there is no longer room for patriotism in economic policy – unless you’re China, of course, but it wouldn’t be much of a game with only one nation playing it.

On a technological front there was the space race, and there have even been games built around it. But in the 21st century, the urgency and the sense of competition has been lost. Rovers on Mars, probes on comets and space stations tend to be viewed in a spirit of collective human achievement, partly because of the collaborative nature of modern space exploration, and also, I suspect, because lots of people in those fields are Star Trek fans.

The idea of going to Mars so you can stand on the surface of another planet and tell the Communists to stuff it no longer appeals as much as that whole "pushing back the scientific boundaries for the benefit of all life of Earth" deal. It is laudable, but not ideal for games built around competing with other countries.

In the 21st century grand strategy game, we wouldn’t be looking to conquer the world, we wouldn’t be looking to buy it and we wouldn’t be looking to leave it in our technological wake either. So what does that leave? What would 21st-century grand strategy look like?

It could be argued that we’ve moved beyond the era of nation states as the bodies driving world affairs, and such a game might reflect that. Maybe something more akin to a Crusader Kings game would be the way to go, with the player taking the role of an individual – a connected political blueblood, perhaps, like an oligarch, a CEO, an activist turned politician, a drugs baron or a terrorist leader. Or maybe we would play not as an individual, but as an organisation, for example the CIA, ExxonMobil, Isis, Amnesty International or the Solntsevskaya Bratva.

It may be that we never see the present day immortalised in a strategy game, at least outside of that passing phase in Civilization where everything is either settled down or exploding in nuclear fire. Perhaps we’re destined to nestle into a historically obscure crack between the tumult of the 20th century and something spectacular or horrible yet to come. It is nice to think, however, that the times we live in are at least interesting and that maybe we’ll get to see it all laid out in a game one day, if only to find out what winning the 21st century would look like.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture