British Forces Broadcasting Service
The British Forces Broadcasting Service was established by the British War Office (now the Ministry of Defence) in 1943. Today it provides radio and television programmes for HM Forces, and their dependents, in Afghanistan, Belize, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Brunei, Canada, Cyprus, the Falkland Islands, Germany, Gibraltar, Kosovo, the Middle East, and Northern Ireland as well as a live satellite service to Royal Navy ships at sea.
Since the 1980s, BFBS has formed part of the Services Sound and Vision Corporation (SSVC), a registered charity, which is also responsible for the British Defence Film Library, SSVC Cinemas, and Combined Services Entertainment, providing entertainment for HM Forces around the world. Neither BFBS Radio nor BFBS Television carry commercial advertising. BFBS exists to ‘entertain and inform’ British armed forces around the world and is entirely funded by the British Ministry of Defence. BFBS is run by the SSVC.
BFBS Radio broadcasts on local FM and other frequencies, and recently DAB in the UK on a trial basis. There are now three BFBS Radio services:
- BFBS Radio - contemporary music and local community radio
- BFBS Radio 2 - popular music, news, current affairs and sport
- BFBS Radio Gurkha - programming for Gurkhas
BFBS Radio broadcasts to service personnel and their families all over the world with radio studios and staff in Belize, Belgium, Bosnia, Brunei, Canada, Cyprus, Germany, Gibraltar, The Falkland Islands, Iraq, Kosovo, The Netherlands and Northern Ireland. In addition, BFBS radio is heard by troops in Afghanistan, Oman and Ascension Island as well as onboard Royal Navy ships at sea live via satellite, on the world wide web from its website and on Sky Digital channel 0211.
Many of the programmes on Radio 2 are sourced from BBC Radio 4 and BBC Radio Five Live, including the soap opera The Archers, which was popular in Hong Kong until BFBS ceased broadcasting after the handover to China in 1997. BFBS Radio also provides programmes in Gurkhali, for the Gurkha units serving with the British Army.
At midnight on Saturday 12 January 2008, BFBS Radio began a trial period of broadcasting nationwide across the UK on DAB, which ran until 23:59 on 31 March 2008. Although audience research carried out during the trial concluded that it was successful, the decision has been made that a permanent DAB broadcast of the station is not currently viable.
BFBS Television started in Germany in 1975, using taped broadcasts from the BBC and ITV, but now broadcasts live via satellite. Videotapes are still sent to forces serving in more remote areas. There is also a service known as BFBS Navy TV, which broadcasts time-shifted versions of the channel to Royal Navy vessels around the world via military satellite.
Most programmes come from the BBC, ITV, and Channel 4, including news from BBC News, Sky News, ITN, and sport from BBC Sport and Sky Sports. BFBS also has its own programmes, including the magazine programme BFBS Reports, the lifestyle programme Hung, Drawn and Quartered and the children's request programme Room 785.
BFBS Television is encrypted in some areas for copyright reasons, as it is intended solely for HM Forces and their families. Until 1997, it was widely available in Cyprus, but its signal is now encrypted or restricted to the Sovereign Base Areas of Akrotiri and Dhekelia as local broadcasters had bought local rights to show English football. However, it is watched by civilians in the Falkland Islands, where it is the only terrestrial TV service. Since 2001 there have been two BFBS Television services:
- BFBS 1 - general entertainment, sport, news, documentary programming - for a more general audience
- BFBS 2 - general entertainment, sport - the so-called 'lads channel', available in operational areas only
A combined version of these two called "BFBS Navy TV" is available on some naval vessels.
Since 2005, BFBS has also distributed commercial networks The Hits, Sky News, Sky Sports 1 and Sky Sports 2 to certain areas. It also plans to start a movie channel in 2008, using money that it has saved following the English Premier League's decision to waive the £250,000 rights fee.
- BFBS exists to ‘entertain and inform’ British armed forces around the world and is entirely funded by the British Ministry of Defence. BFBS is run by the SSVC. But on this occasion no mention of Ministry of defence funding was made. She was introduced simply as a reporter 'from the British Forces Broadcasting Service' who 'has been embedded with the Scots Guards'. As one wag inside the BBC puts it, this suggests a process of 'double embedding', first working for the MoD and second embedding with a regiment. The report began:
- 'Route 6 is the main road North out of Basra. It runs through the badlands of Iraq’s marsh Arabs They make a living from crime - carjackings, smuggling and murder are common place. It’s also the scene of an age old feud between two warring tribes.' (25 November 2004)
- Naturally enough, we are told that the regiment in which the reporter is 'embedded' has resolved these tribal problems by negotiating 'a ceasefire' following which ' the two tribes had had their first nights sleep in several months'.
- The British Army view of the Iraqi people can be less than sympathetic. The army crackdown on looting early in the occupation was codenamed ‘Operation Ali Baba’ after the folk tale 'Ali Baba and the forty thieves'. Issuing orders for Operation Ali Baba the commanding officer gave what the Army now acknowledges was an illegal order to 'work them hard'. This led predictably to torture, only discovered when some brave soul in a photo developing shop reported the resulting record of abuse to the police. The view of the Iraq population as thieves is evidently shared by both torturers and propagandists.
- The report included interviews with five separate British soldiers including one with a 'master sniper' brought in to counter resistance attacks on the Iraqi police. But there were no interviews with any Iraqis. The report concludes with a straight forward piece of propaganda for the occupation: 'While the Scots Guards remain the ceasefire is likely to hold strong. There’s been little trouble in the area since the peace was brokered and the ceasefire has been extended to December the first. But the Iraqi police and national guard still lack confidence and credibility to keep the peace on their own and should the fighting resume, the governor of Basra has given the go ahead for the Scots Guards to use more force to make route 6 safe again.' Even though the report has itself hinted that the fighting is targetting the occupation, we are left with the extraordinary statement that the army in illegal ocupation of Iraq is actually a 'peacekeeping' force.
- According to the editor of Good Morning Scotland the piece ‘was a bit a of a one-off because she happened to have been embedded with the Royal Scots. Until a few months ago Martha was a correspondent here at BBC Scotland (had been for several years) and is therefore a journalist we know and trust... It was quite an unsual commission’. Unusual indeed, but not unique. Further inquiries by Spinwatch have revealed that another item from a different BFBS journalist was broadcast on Radio Scotland on Christmas day 2004. Insiders at BBC Scotland are livid about this, indeed several have contacted Spinwatch to pass on their concerns. One reports that colleagues have remarked on the 'complete lack of balance' of the piece and one described it as 'an audio press release for the Army'.*
- But were the BBC right to say that the journalist concerned was one ‘we know and trust’? Certainly there has been a significant wave of journalists from the mainstream media signing up to work for the government since the election of the Blair government. Alastair Campbell is only the most famous. BBC journalists too have made the transition to propagandist as in the example of Mark Laity who became a spin doctor at NATO from whom no further work was commissioned..
- The BBC editor claimed in defence that ‘I should stress too that BFBS is not controlled by the MOD. It is funded by them in much the same way the BBC World Service is funded by the Foreign Office. Their journalists are actually employed by the SSVC, the Services Sound and Vision Corporation, which is a charitable organisation with editorial independence from the MoD.’ (email to the author, December 2004)
- This is not quite accurate. A quick visit to the website of the Services Sound and Vision Corporation (SSVC) which is the parent of the BFBS reveals that 'Our work makes a considerable contribution to the maintenance of the efficiency and morale of the three Services. Our activities are carried out directly for the Ministry of Defence. Any profits are donated towards Forces' welfare.' Whatever might be said about the World Service relationship with the Foreign Office, it has not ever been accused of donating its profits to the welfare of Britain's diplomats. The notion that the SSVC which is wholly funded by the MoD serves any other purpose than propaganda is fanciful.
- The BBC editor also noted: ‘Nonetheless we did flag up in the cue that she was embedded for the BFBS.’ They did indeed, but very few radio listeners are familiar with what the BFBS is.
- Alan Grace: This Is the British Forces Network. The Story of Forces Broadcasting in Germany. Stroud (1996) ISBN 0-7509-1105-0
- Alan Grace: The Link With Home. 60 Years of Forces Radio. Chalfont (2003) ISBN 0-9522135-1-6
- David Miller BBC broadcast fake news reports, Spinwatch 15 March 2005.
- David Miller The SSVC Responds, Spinwatch 10 April 2005
- Doreen Taylor: A Microphone and a Frequency. Forty Years of Forces Broadcasting. London (1983) ISBN 0-434-75710-1 and ISBN 0-434-75711-X
- Oliver Zöllner: BFBS: 'Freund in der Fremde'. British Forces Broadcasting Service (Germany) - der britische Militärrundfunk in Deutschland. Göttingen (1996) [in German] ISBN 3-89588-632-7.
- Oliver Zöllner: Forces Broadcasting: A 'Friend' Abroad. In: Communications, Vol. 21 (1996), issue 4, pp. 447-466 ISSN 0341-2059
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