‘‘You’re mistaken if you think you can hand Margaret Thatcher a pearl-handled revolver and expect her to do the right thing. She’d shoot you with it.” As memory serves me, those were the words of a member of parliament being interviewed on the BBC World Service in November 1990. The programme was Newshour, and the presenter was Owen Bennett-Jones. I recall these details because the ousting of Thatcher was the first political event I tuned into properly as a child with an interest in politics living in a sub-Saharan African country with no access to media that covered current events.
Satellite dishes were prohibitively expensive, and apart from a short news bulletin on state-controlled TV there was no other source of news, let alone analysis – until I found the BBC World Service on shortwave radio. I started to haul the only portable radio in the house, a large battery-powered contraption with a long-bent aerial, everywhere I went, becoming aware of the dead zones in the house where the signal was weak, and making note of the times when the signal was strongest. Night-times were the worst. I would heave the radio into the bed and painstakingly tease the dial to find the crackling transmission from Bush House, able only to fall asleep when I managed to find the faint voices fading in and out of the crackle of white noise.
What was a pearl-handled revolver? Why would Thatcher shoot anyone with it? Over the next few days the BBC World Service’s team delivered an explanation of the metaphor, and the crisis in general, through coverage so rich and dense that I began to record it and listen back at a slower pace so I could make sense of it all.
In the following years the World Service took a child growing up in a poor and isolated country and delivered an incorporation into world events, not only through current affairs coverage but also music, features and drama. Bennett-Jones swept across the latest news in an hour with a sharp, intelligent bonhomie. Alistair Cooke’s avuncular dispatches from America offered gently humorous but profound post-cold war observations. In From Our Own Correspondent, BBC journalists managed in 15 minutes to take a part of the world unknown to me and paint an image of it in my head. The channel provided a refuge for me in times of domestic discord, company in stifling childhood isolation, and intellectual stimulation during long, maddening bouts of boredom. All for the price of a shortwave radio.
It is no exaggeration to say that I would not be the writer I am today without the BBC. As the institution comes under increasing pressure because of its public funding model, it is hard to communicate to those who have access to a good education, an assortment of entertainment options and the regular warmth of interaction with family and friends, how life-transforming a single radio station, or indeed a single radio show, can be.
There is something uniquely edifying about the BBC, something companionable, a curiosity that feels inclusive rather than delivered from a distance, like a nerdy professor trying to make the material fun and easy to digest. This is only possible because of its public nature. It has the space to experiment and fail, but in the sum of its parts produce programmes that – for a small amount of money per viewer – entertain, educate and galvanise a nation.
The World Service and its local language channels achieve a rare thing – free coverage of news events with a colour, detail and dedication absent from the media behemoths fixated on western current affairs. This combination of authority and striving for accessibility makes it what it is. To be a BBC listener or viewer doesn’t feel like being a consumer, exchanging money for a product, it feels like being a partner, an owner of the material.
Those who advocate for the elimination of public services, because of the rise and success of private providers that do something marginally similar, fail to understand that the BBC needs to remain a public service because there is more competition, not in spite of it. Competition creates a race to the bottom, cutting everything that doesn’t cover its costs.
I was exposed to a different BBC when I moved to the UK – a more inward looking but no less ambitious broadcaster than its World Service channels. Through it came a different education, an initiation into British pop culture, humour and debate. With that initiation came the more intimate relationship of being a licence fee-paying stakeholder. And so alongside the pleasure of being able to switch on the radio in the morning and listen, ad-free, to the prime minister being grilled on the Today programme, came a frustration with the tone of the debate about the future of the BBC, a despair at what had become a less thoughtful, more pugilistic debating culture. Some of this is a national sport, but it must be acknowledged that BBC-bashing comes not only from a place of ownership and affection but from privilege, and a fixation on the current affairs side of its output.
Despite the BBC’s undoubted failure to curate some news events responsibly, as well as on equal pay and its propensity to recruit from Oxbridge, leading to an establishment world view, I have to remind myself that compared to subscription channels such as Sky, or streaming models such as Netflix, it has the highest penetration in UK homes, the lowest cost and the lowest barriers to access, not requiring a high-speed internet connection, a passed credit check for a long-term contract, or the installation of any equipment. There is someone, somewhere, not only in the UK but across the world, on a drive to work, or sitting alone at home facing a long day of silence, or playing with a dial at night to lift the heavy burden of the day, for whom the BBC is not only an amenity but a lifeline.
• Nesrine Malik is a Guardian columnist