London Calling

After the Russian attack on Finland in 1939, BBC producers scrambled to rustle up some Finnish speakers to produce programming. It took them so long that by the time the first broadcast went on-air in 1940, the Winter War was already over. Reasoning that there was still a value in pandering to the Finns and correcting whatever nonsense the Russians were telling them, the BBC broadcasts kicked off anyway, and were hence already up and running when the Continuation War broke out.

Moscow tried to seize the airwaves with their own stooges, including Armas Äikiä, who had briefly been the Minister for Agriculture in the short-lived “Finnish Democratic Republic” proclaimed in what is now the St Petersburg suburbs. The real star, however, albeit for all the wrong reasons, was Aino Kallio, a.k.a. “Moskovan Tiltu”, bestowed with a name that recalled, for Finns, imagery from a popular 1920s song of credulous teenage cluelessness. While “Tiltu” harangued the Finns about their co-belligerency pact with the Nazis, (a style ridiculed in a popular song as nothing but “soup and rattling”) the BBC also entered the fray, with broadcasts from Greta Kivinen, a.k.a. “London Jenny.” She also slagged off the Finns for getting into bed with Hitler, but tried to warn them off Stalin as well.

In the Finnish-language book This is London: the BBC’s Finnish Broadcasters in the Information War Between East and West (Lontoo Täällä: BBC:n Suomalaistuomittajat Idän ja Lännen Välisessä Informaatiosodassa) editor Ilpo Salonen and contributors Risto Uimonen and Hanna Rajalahti present a bitty grab-bag of reminiscences and anecdotes. There are, in fact, dozens of authors, with almost every surviving journalist seemingly given a couple of pages to reminisce about their challenges and careers. This can occasionally lead to chapters that repeat themselves, but represents a fascinating patchwork of accounts of the changing requirements of these obscure cogs in the Bush House machine, who referred to themselves as the bushfinnit.

During the Cold War, it was not even clear if anyone was listening. The Soviets began jamming the BBC’s short-wave radio frequency, such that many Finns reported nothing but a crackle of static when they turned the dial to the correct point. Up until 1956, when the Soviets returned the Porkkala peninsula to Finland, “you had to strain to listen carefully if you wanted to hear something through the noise.” By the 1960s, the journalists had got the hang of it, and worked out what sort of news stories would be catnip to the Finns. In the face of ongoing BBC bureaucratic stone-walling, they fought for extra time to do justice in Finnish broadcasts of Churchill’s funeral (1965) and the state visit to London by the Finnish leader Urho Kekkonen in 1961.

A new generation of staffers arrived in the 1970s, determined to shake up what they saw as a stuffy establishment. As the old guard retired, their younger replacements, raised on sixties radicalism, began to argue that while they understood that it was the mission of the BBC’s foreign service to report on the world from a “British” perspective, they would secure a larger audience if they tried to pander, at least a little, to Finnish interests. There were, for example, substantial arguments behind the scenes over the BBC’s intended coverage of Vatican matters, since Finland hardly has any Catholics who would give a toss. The Finnish section was also somewhat wrong-footed by the occupation of the Falkland Islands, which they regarded for several days as an eye-rolling “And Finally…” joke, until Thatcher sent a task-force to counter-attack.

Many of the correspondents are plainly incredible Anglophiles, and there are many touching stories about Swinging London and the early rumblings of Cool Britannia. Not to mention a cringe-worthy Alan Partridge moment, as, after the broadcast of Paul Macartney’s glasnost-era concert in Moscow, famously featuring the triumphalist “Back in the USSR”, the Finnish section’s Petri Nevalainen spots Macartney coming out of a studio, and sees the chance for doorstepping journalistic gold.

He grabs the former Beatle, shoves a microphone in his face, and demands to know why he has never performed in Finland.

“I did,” says Macartney. “With Wings.”

For many years, the BBC maintained at least one stringer in Finland, but from 1996 had a dedicated Helsinki office in Kaisaniemi, effectively moving much of the Finnish broadcast operations in-country. There was, however, a less obvious need for the BBC to stick its oar in at all, and in the face of cutbacks and increasing competition from the Finns themselves, the short-wave broadcasts shut down for good in 1997.

A closing essay by Jyrki Kokki takes the story of the foreign languages section up to 2020, amounting to a litany of funding cuts, ill-conceived revenue-generation initiatives, and the slow shuttering of a service once deemed vital by government and administrators. In some cases, this was a matter of changing demographics – there seems, notes Kokki, little point in running German-language broadcasts if all the Germans speak English anyway. But there is also a note of quiet concern, as a national broadcaster is undermined by its own government, slowly chipped away into nothing, even if nation still needs to speak unto nation.

Jonathan Clements is the author of An Armchair Traveller’s History of Finland. Lontoo Täällä: BBC:n Suomalaistuomittajat Idän ja Lännen Välisessä Informaatiosodassa is published by WSOY.

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