This is Radio Bum-Bum: The Post-War Story of the BBC Polish Section
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The Post-War Story of the
BBC Polish Section, Czesław Miłosz with Zdzisław Broncel, Józef Zarański and Prof. Wiktor Weintraub, 1956, photo: archive of the editorial office of the Polish section of, center, #000000, milosz-broncl-zaranski-weintrauben-bbc-co-uk.jpg
After the war, came the curtain, and a new reason for the BBC’s Polish team to fight over the airwaves. Concluding her two-part story, Juliette Bretan examines the post-war role of the Polish Section.
As we saw in part one, the BBC’s Polish Section had been a crucial element of the Polish war effort, providing support for Poles both in Poland and abroad – even if with a fair few controversies too. But after the war, the Polish Section yet again proved a valuable part of Polish life, providing information on the situation behind the Iron Curtain to the Polish diaspora, whilst also acting as a hub for Polish culture. That is, until it was unceremoniously disbanded in 2005.
After the bombs
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The Polish Section continued its coverage of events in Europe as World War II drew to an end. But at the Yalta Conference in February 1945, it was established by ‘The Big Three’ that Poland would become dominated by Stalin’s neighbouring Soviet Union. It wasn’t before long that this trickled down to affect the BBC service, despite it being based in the UK.
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In May 1945, writes historian Agnieszka Morriss, the service reported the suspicious disappearance of 16 Polish Underground leaders by Soviet authorities in Moscow. The British House of Commons had questioned the actions of the Soviet officials – and ‘the Polish Service quoted the announcement of Minister of State, Richard Law, that the British government was pressing the Soviets for answers’. Later, the service reported that all 16 had been arrested. Their staged trial was reported by every BBC service – and though these were designed to be impartial, the Polish section’s coverage contained downplayed excerpts from newspaper reports, suggesting the proceedings in Moscow were ‘informal’.
The service also took on a supportive role for Poles left displaced by the war, notes Morriss. Initially, it broadcast Churchill’s pledge to protect Poles ‘as long as conditions make it impractical or undesirable for them to be repatriated or otherwise provided for’. Then, it transmitted announcements by SHAEF, the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force, which were aimed at people and prisoners from liberated German labour camps. The messages, which instructed other nationalities to return to their country of origin, instead told Poles to indicate whether they wished to return to Poland.
However, after the British and Americans withdrew their recognition of the Polish Government-in-Exile, SHAEF gradually began encouraging displaced Poles to journey back to Poland. It also continued its wartime reputation for touting British policy, with broadcasts designed to persuade Poles of the need for an amicable relationship with the USSR.
While it cannot be argued that the broadcasts of the Polish Service were biased, they were definitely not neutral. The selection of information and quotes from the press in the bulletins played a significant role in presenting in a positive light key political developments such as the formation of the Polish Provisional Government of National Unity. Polish officials’ speeches that were subjected to Foreign Office censorship were recognised as having an enormous impact on listeners in Poland and acted as assurance of the allies’ pledges.
The station also reported on VE day celebrations – which Poles were controversially not invited to attend.
But after 1947, says Morriss, the service began to become more critical of the Soviet authorities. Also in the immediate post-war years, according to Norman Davies, it was becoming ‘a natural magnet for all those who had gained a passion for broadcasting in the Underground’.
Journalist Jan Nowak-Jeziorański, who joined the service in 1948, also recalled that:
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During my three years of work in the Polish section of the BBC, I came across English people who, during the uprising, were stuck at the most selective, special receivers for a whole week, trying to catch the signal of ‘Błyskawica’ [the Underground radio station].
Competition & challenges
In the late 1940s and 1950s, transmissions began to cover events in Poland – providing a sharp contrast to Soviet propaganda. Though the number of listeners tuning in from Poland was widespread, this was a forbidden activity.
But soon, the broadcaster was no longer the only source of information.
In 1951, when the US Congress decided to provide funding for a radio station directed to the countries of the Soviet bloc, the Polish Section of the BBC inevitably supplied much of the talent for the Polish Section for Radio Free Europe [RFE] in Munich.
Journalists from the BBC’s Polish Section flocked to join RFE – a more prosperous, and influential, broadcaster:
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Only with Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, however, did a country establish broadcast services whose purpose was to change the form of government in foreign nations by airing news not about the country from which the broadcasts originated but about the countries that were the broadcast targets.
But that didn’t mean the Polish Section lost loyal listeners. Defending his 2009 book on the BBC Polish Section, Tu Mówi Londyn, Krzysztof Pszenicki, one of the last directors of the service, wrote:
One of the reasons for writing this text is to prove that Radio Free Europe was the most important, but by no means the only radio station affecting Poles.
Pszenicki argued that though RFE had greater ‘airtime, people and money’, audience numbers for both broadcasters were similar.
But – for both RFE and the BBC – broadcasts faced a more serious issue: jamming. In 1951, writes Arch Puddington, the Soviets had set up over a thousand jamming devices, all designed to interfere with broadcasts from Western stations.
RFE was particularly famous for being targeted – but the BBC Polish Section was also jammed until The Thaw in 1956. Due to the unique sound of its signal, the BBC Polish Section earned the epithet ‘Radio Bum Bum’ – a name which was later used to refer to RFE, and Voice of America.
Polish life via radio
Despite other stations, Poles did seem to have a particular affinity for the Polish Section.
In the post-war world, writes Alban Webb, the service certainly had a ‘large and eager audience’, with a survey undertaken in Poznań in 1956 finding that 80% of listeners tuned in to Western broadcasts. Twenty years later, another survey of Polish visitors to the West recorded 24% listened to the BBC Polish Section. Webb suggests that the section’s popularity grew during the post-war period as a direct result of events in Poland:
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Polish political, cultural, welfare, social, religious and educational institutions abounded and the reach of Polish community life in Britain is one of the characteristics that helped define its distinctiveness in subsequent decades. Simultaneously, the sealing-in of Polish society within the Soviet sphere made the lives of the émigré population ever more distant from those of their fellow countrymen. As a consequence, in the course of subsequent decades, developments in Poland that burst onto the international stage took on great significance for Polish émigrés as indicators of life in Poland and updating assessments of the likelihood of liberation and a return home. They also provided new waves of emigration with which to replenish the diaspora.
Webb suggests this had an influence on the ‘diasporic staffing’ of the station, which had gained a ‘credibility with audiences’ for its ‘authentic Polish voice’. Together with Puddington’s assessment of the BBC’s reputation at the time for professionalism and objectivity, the service became a home from home to many Poles.
And the Polish Section was also becoming a home for a wide variety of non-news content too. Since the 1950s, it broadcast regular cultural, music, religious and scientific programmes – garnering some visits from famous faces too, including Artur Rubenstein in 1961, Czesław Milosz in 1980 and Ryszard Kapuściński in 1987.
Pre-war artists like Zofia Terné and Marek Żuławski also worked for the service.
And with the beleaguered Radio Liberty still facing jamming, by the mid-1970s, the BBC had overtaken the broadcaster in terms of weekly audience reach.
End of the Cold War
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Lech Wałęsa in the Polish Section of the BBC, photo: archive of the editorial office of the Polish section of the BBC
But the Polish Section had an especially valuable role to play in the 1980s.
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The weekday 18:00 Kaleidoscope programme was considered by section staff as the most important, attracting the attention of listeners returned from work and before the Polish television news started at 19:30. It was in the course of these broadcasts, during the summer and autumn of 1980 and into the next year, that the BBC kept its listeners informed of the industrial unrest and gathering momentum behind the strikes at the Gdansk shipyards.
With news growing of disruption in Poland, writes Webb, the service suddenly acquired prominence among not only Polish but now non-Polish listeners:
The pace and force of these events caught the attention of the world and brought news about Poland an international appeal and immediacy that it might otherwise have lacked. It also meant that the BBC’s Polish output took on greater significance both within the BBC, as an expert interpreter of events, and with audiences in Poland seeking non-Polish state sources to comprehend what was happening.
In the early 1980s – and particularly after the introduction of martial law – there was discussion that the BBC should expand coverage within Poland, but due to funding issues, this never happened. So the Polish Section had to plug the gap, with the service allocated additional airtime.
After martial law was introduced, the service faced a revival of jamming – but this time some programmes were broadcast on medium wave, which provided the most effective night-time pickup conditions.
According to records in the BBC Written Archive Centre, quoted by Webb, listeners in Poland sent letters to the service thanking them for updates.
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I listen to you every day. Only you tell the truth […] were it not for you we would have no idea what’s going on in this country.
Listener from Gdynia, Feb 1982
The section was also undergoing its own changes throughout the 1980s. Webb notes that programming was moving away from subjects ‘that did not attract censorship in Poland’ to focus ‘on those items of information about which the listener was denied access’. This meant regional interests were prioritised – a shift from usual BBC practice, which allowed the station more control over programming, rather than depending on centralised material.
This enhanced […] the long tradition of do-it-yourself broadcasting within the Polish Section [...] it also put the Polish Section on a different editorial course from other language services at Bush House.
After the cultural purges of March 1968, adds Webb, the service had begun to rely more on ‘a network of diasporic links that connected [it] to social reform movements within Poland and émigré organisations working on their behalf around the world’ – including the Committee for the Defence of the Workers, which ‘formed the core of the Solidarity movement’. With the service given the editorial freedom to use these connections, the BBC’s output was diversified, and Polish coverage expanded.
And after the Gdansk Agreement in 1980, Webb notes that the service was also given additional broadcasting opportunities.
Live discussions reflecting dissident opinion from within Poland – almost unthinkable beforehand – became an important (if still difficult to orchestrate) element of output.
Jamming ended in 1988, and with this also came ‘more adventurous’ programming, according to Diane Faulls’s 1990 interview with Gienek Smolar, the head of the section at the time. Telephone interviews were organised with Lech Wałesa, as well as representatives of the Communist Party – and the station became ‘the first Western radio station to obtain such interviews routinely’.
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This allowed different political ideas to be exchanged and debated even before the Round Table talks in Poland.
‘I know that the BBC Polish Section will never be as important as it was during the war,’ Smolar added. ‘But we can be as reliable and up-to-date as we were at that time – that is our task for the future.’
After the fall of the Iron Curtain
Already in the 1990s, the station was thinking of its new future. After the fall of the Iron Curtain, the Polish Section was able to extend its reach to an even wider audience: it partnered with Polish radio and commercial stations, as well as setting up an editorial office in Warsaw in 1996. The service also developed a website – which included English language courses.
Its news output also continued to inform Poles around the world. In 2004, it also reported on the funeral of Czesław Miłosz. And, when Poland was preparing for its accession to the European Union, the Polish editorial board broadcast programmes about the structures and everyday processes of the EU. The service appeared to be going from strength to strength.
But then, in 2005, the BBC underwent reorganisation, and it was decided that ten language stations should dissolve. One of them was the Polish Section.
The last radio programme was broadcast on 23rd December 2005, and recapped the station’s illustrious, enterprising, community-minded – even if sometimes controversial – history. A farewell dinner was held at Ognisko Polskie the following year.
Over the past sixty-six years, only a few dozen people have had the honour of starting a program with the words ‘This is London speaking’ – the same words that London started programs for Warsaw during the Warsaw Uprising and later during the communist era. I am glad that I belong to this privileged group.
BBC Polish Section journalist, Grzegorz Adamczyk, speaking to Press.pl.
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Written by Juliette Bretan, Aug 2020
Sources: bbc.co.uk; worldradiohistory.com; Agnieszka Morriss, ‘The BBC Polish Service during World War II’, Unpublished Doctoral thesis, City University of London, 2016; Marie Gillespie and Alban Webb, editors, ‘Diasporas and Diplomacy’, Routledge, 2013; A. Ross Johnson, R. Eugene Parta, editors, ‘Cold War Broadcasting’, CEU Press, 2010; Norman Davies, ‘Rising '44’, Pan Macmillan, 2008; Jan Nowak, ‘Courier from Warsaw’, Wayne State University Press, 1982