The implications of Cuts to the BBC World Service - Foreign Affairs Committee Contents


The BBC World Service has been described by Kofi Annan as "perhaps Britain's greatest gift to the world". It promotes British values across the globe and has a reputation exceeded by none. Despite this, the World Service has suffered a disproportionate reduction in its future Grant-in-Aid under the Spending Review settlement, by comparison with that of the 'core FCO': allowing for inflation, 16% as against 10% across the four years 2010-11 to 2014-15. The value of the World Service in promoting the UK across the globe, by providing a widely respected and trusted news service in combination with high-quality journalism, continues far to outweigh the relatively small cost of the service.

We believe that the BBC World Service is of such value to the nation that its income should be ring-fenced against spending cuts. The recent dramatic events in North Africa and the Middle East have shown that the "soft power" wielded through the World Service is likely to bring even more benefits to the UK in the future than it has in the past, and that to proceed with the planned cuts to the World Service would be a false economy. We recommend that the decision to reduce World Service spending by 16% during the SR2010 period should be reversed, and resources made available for it to continue its operations at roughly the 2010-11 level of staffing and output.

If, notwithstanding our recommendation, the Service's funding is reduced, it will be important that cuts are imposed in such a way as to minimise the damage done. In particular, we call for the World Service to commit itself to longer-term support for an unreduced BBC Hindi and BBC China Mandarin shortwave service, and to providing enhanced resources to BBC Arabic as required by the recent and continuing political developments in the region.

We welcome the Foreign Secretary's assurance to the House that World Service journalists who lose their jobs will not be compelled to return to a country where they may face persecution or be placed in physical danger. We conclude that it is important that this assurance is honoured. We recommend that, in its response to this Report, the World Service update us on the continuing status of those individuals whose residence in this country depends on their employment with the World Service.

There is a discrepancy between the relatively small amounts of money needed to avoid the most damaging cuts to the World Service and the scale of the Department for International Development Spending Review settlement. Some of the activity of the World Service contributes to the wider aims of DFID and it would be appropriate to consider how an additional small element of the DFID budget might be spent on specific activities and projects of the World Service which are consistent with the terms of the International Development Act 2002. A transfer of just 0.35% of DFID's resource budget over the next three years would compensate for the proposed 16% reduction in World Service funding. There is no reason why such a transfer should not be made if the political will to carry it out is present.

The BBC World Service should do more to increase its turnover from its commercial activities and should work more closely with private sector firms in host countries.

The decision to transfer funding responsibility for the BBC World Service from the FCO to the BBC will have major long-term ramifications for the future of the World Service. Preliminary "modelling" of a transfer was carried out by the BBC in summer 2010—we ask for clarification as to whether this was encouraged by the Government. High-level discussions between the Government and the BBC about a transfer took place for the first time only nine days before the formal announcement of the change, and the approval of the Foreign Secretary was secured only 48 hours before. Taking this decision in such a short space of time cannot have allowed the FCO to consider the full range of options and implications. The decision was essentially financial, taken at very short notice, albeit with the full agreement of BBC top management.

We do not believe that the decision to transfer funding responsibility for the World Service from the FCO to the BBC will make the World Service's funding more secure. We are concerned that, despite the mechanisms and procedures we have been assured will be put in place, this decision could lead to long-term pressure on the World Service budget, with the risk of a gradual diversion of resources from the World Service to fund other BBC activities. No transfer of funding responsibility for the World Service from the direct FCO Grant-in-Aid to the BBC should take place until satisfactory safeguards have been put in place to prevent any risk of long-term erosion of the World Service's funding and of Parliament's right to oversee its work.

A formal concordat should be drawn up between the Government and the BBC Trust, to make detailed provision for future funding and governance arrangements for the World Service, and the Foreign Secretary must ensure that the World Service is adequately represented at the top levels of BBC management.

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Prepared 13 April 2011