Let BBC Russia Inform,Not Pander to the State

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Until the early 1990s, anyone applying for a job in the BBC Russian Service had to undergo a security clearance. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian Service had to make a choice. Should it open its doors to former Soviet journalists who had perhaps been forced to cooperate with a system they secretly despised?

It was decided to stop security clearances and, in the name of greater professionalism, to only recruit Russians who were experienced journalists with an excellent knowledge of English. Since Russia was thought to be on the path to democracy, an overly strict security policy was seen as bad taste and outdated.

For a while it was possible to imagine that no harm had been done. During the past few years, however, the pro-Kremlin bias shown by the Russian Service has been only too blatant. The area where bias is most evident is -- to no surprise -- in everything related to the security services. After the murder of former security service officer Alexander Litvinenko, the Russian Service gave far more airtime to the views of the Kremlin than it did to those of its critics. Only one program gave fair coverage to all points of view. A scheduled repeat of this program was canceled, and it was quickly removed from the web site. Most shocking of all, its producer received an official reprimand, even though the program was far milder in its criticisms of the Kremlin than a later BBC TV "Panorama" documentary.

John Reith, the first director of the BBC, said the network's mission was to inform, educate and entertain. The present director of the World Service sees it as the provision of "rolling news coverage." He fails to understand that what Russian listeners need even more than news are different perspectives to view this news. The question of the status of Abkhazia and South Ossetia offers a clear example. Most Russians believe that the West has adopted one standard for Kosovo and another for these two regions. This kind of issue, which is too complex to be covered in a news program, has for many years been the staple material of the prerecorded features to which most of Britain's top Russian experts have contributed and which are about to be axed. We should all hope that these programs, which represent the very best of the BBC, will be reprieved.

Robert Chandler translated Vasily Grossman's novel "Life and Fate." Martin Dewhirst is honorary research fellow of Glasgow University. Both have contributed to the BBC Russian Service for at least 30 years.