What was the BBC Polish Section?

Those of us who arrived in the UK within the last couple of years, together with the last wave of immigration may not know that the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) was maintaining the specially designated Polish BBC channel. Across the years’ many people considered the BBC programmes as the only connection with the world behind the Iron Curtain. Regular listeners up to this day are very sentimental about the role which the channel was serving during the war or later throughout the occupation of Poland. The emotional and prising comments from the audience, available on the BBC Polish section website remind us how important the channel was for the Poles in the UK and for those in Poland. The BBC Polish section was also often described as a heaven for the Polish intellectuals and become a serious platform of Polish and British cooperation.

The BBC Polish Section was first established in September 1939. The opening of the media channel was an immediate reaction of the British government after the German aggression on Poland. The first audition was broadcasted on 7 September 1939 and the opening speech was delivered by Polish ambassador in London, Edward Raczyński.

The programmes which the BBC had in its offer at that time were mainly news, commentaries, interviews and all sorts of reports. The broadcasts were also used for transmitting coded orders and messages for the Polish Underground army back in the country. During the war, the section was also reporting on the course of military operations and major political events. The BBC channel was often the only source of propaganda free, impartial news for the listeners in occupied Europe.

In the beginning, just a few journalists were preparing all the content. The popularity of the section was systematically rising, and the number of journalists involved quickly expanded. Also, the number of audiences of BBC section was systematically increasing. Many listeners later confessed that the communication channel created by the BBC with the conjunction of polish journalists had been giving them a huge amount of hope during the war years. It is, however, important to mention that the public was facing a harsh punishment in occupied Europe for the listening to the London broadcasts. People were often persecuted as enemies of the countries when authorities discovered that they were listening to BBC programmes. This however never stopped the people from the listening and the popularity, reputation of BBC programmes was increasing.

The BBC Polish Section broadcasts were also a good source of information for the editors of the underground press. Very often they report were created based on the content broadcasted by the polish channels in London. The BBC radio helped to connect the Polish government in exile which resided in London with the rest of the occupied country. Thanks to the efforts of the journalist both in Poland and in the UK the world was informed about the outbreak of Warsaw Uprising. This message was aired by the BBC channel relaying on the reportage received from polish underground sources. The BBC auditions of that time also consisted the reports about the battles and speeches made by the leading political and military leaders.

The listeners, who lived behind the Iron Curtain did not have an easy to access the BBC broadcasts. All type of western media waves and programmes were successively jammed by the occupying powers in Germany and in Eastern Europe. Jamming was partially stopped in the 1970s but introduced again just in 1981 due to the implementation of martial law in Poland. Jamming officially ended in 1988. During this period (80’s and 90’s) the BBC programmes were mainly concentrating on impartial and uncensored news, but the programming was also expanded to matters related to culture, technology and social issues. The Polish Section regularly featured a cultural, music, religious and scientific programs. They introduced and presented to the broader public many outstanding musicians, painters, actors, writers and poets.

The programmes included also auditions about British life and customs and the daily English languages  lessons.

The Polish Section of the BBC has played an important role in informing the public opinion in the occupied countries but also helped to spread the culture. This sorts of views and art which otherwise would be unavailable because of the internal censorship. The BBC platform contributed enormously to the development of polish public opinion and might be seen as having a significant influence on peaceful democratic transformation in Poland. The BBC Polish Section media has become an important forum for exchanging political and social ideas.

The democratic breakthrough of 1989-90 has brought a new challenge but also new opportunities for the Polish Section of the BBC. New possibilities and technologies become available. The BBC Polish Section established a partnership with Polish Radio and other commercial stations. The platform had also played an important role during the preparations for Poland’s accession to the European Union. The BBC Polish Editors presented a series of programmes which were talking about the European Union and its functions. In these programs, the editorial team were familiarising the audience with the Unions’ institutional structures, integration processes, social, economic and political problems of Europe, and with the daily lives of European Union citizens.

In October 2005, the management of the BBC World Service announced plans to close the polish speaking BBC services. This decision was motivated by the need for BBC expansion to the Middle East.  The Corporation wanted to invest primarily in the  new Arabic-language television services.  The last broadcast in Polish took place on 23 December 2005.

Archival materials and recordings about the BBC Polish Section are still available on the internet and could be accessed here.


Alicja Prochniak