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

3  Proposed closures and service reductions

18.  The Foreign Secretary announced the World Service's proposed closures and service reductions on 26 January 2011. He stated that he had approved "the BBC Trust's proposal to close five language services: Albanian, Macedonian, Serbian, Portuguese for Africa and English for the Caribbean".[29] More detail was provided by the Director of the World Service, Peter Horrocks, in an e-mail to Members of Parliament also dated 26 January.[30] As part of a plan to make annual savings of £46 million by the end of three years, Mr Horrocks announced, in addition to the five full service closures:

  • the end of radio distribution in seven languages leaving those services reliant on online and new media distribution: Azeri, Mandarin Chinese (Cantonese radio programmes continue), Russian (save for three programmes which will be distributed online), Spanish for Cuba, Turkish, Vietnamese, and Ukrainian. Subsequent written evidence from the World Service indicates that "the distribution saving [of closing these services] is expected to be £0.8 million per annum", with "associated savings in production costs of £4.2 million per annum".[31]
  • a phased withdrawal from most short wave and medium wave radio distribution. Language services affected included: Arabic, Hindi, Indonesian, Kyrgyz, Nepali, Swahili, the Great Lakes service in Kinyarwanda/Kirundi (for Rwanda and Burundi) and Uzbek, all of which will cease broadcasting on short wave in March 2011. Service in FM and through online distribution will remain, and
  • a reduction in the distribution of World Service in English.

As a result of this process:

  • It is estimated that there will be 650 post closures by 2014-15 from a total of 2,400 staff. It was proposed to close 480 of those posts during the next financial year 2011-2012, and
  • It was expected that audiences would fall by more than 30 million from the current weekly figure of 180 million.

19.  The 'Broadcasting Agreement' governing the relationship between the FCO and the World Service states that "The FCO is responsible for agreeing with the BBC objectives and appropriate performance measures", but that the BBC World Service remains "independent in all matters concerning the content of its output, the times and manner in which this is supplied and in the management of its affairs".[32] Closure of language services require the formal approval of the Foreign Secretary, but other service reductions can be imposed by World Service management without Ministers having a 'veto' over them.

20.  The World Service told us that a meeting between their management and the Foreign Secretary took place on 14 December 2010, to discuss "options for delivering the savings required by the Spending Review settlement".[33] At this meeting, criteria were agreed that would guide the World Service's subsequent decisions to close or reduce services, namely:

the strategic importance of the countries they serve and the need of their populations for independent, impartial news; the impact of BBC services in those markets; and the cost effectiveness of the services.[34]

21.  Prior to the formal announcement from the BBC, Sir Michael Lyons, Chair of the BBC Trust, wrote to the Foreign Secretary, on 12 January, requesting his formal agreement to the proposed service closures. This letter stated that:

I believe we both agree that it is imperative that service continues to reach as wide an audience as possible in a rapidly changing global media environment, as well as continuing to fulfil its vitally important role for the UK.

However, Sir Michael added, the decisions

taken together, will materially affect the audience and impact of the World Service, but are unavoidable given the financial framework for the World Service.[35]

Job losses

22.  In November 2010, giving evidence as part of our FCO Performance and Finances inquiry, Peter Horrocks told us that "hundreds of jobs [...] will need to go" as a result of the reduced Grant-in-Aid to the World Service announced in the Spending Review. He added that the World Service was a very staff-heavy organisation, and therefore "most of our costs are in people, and so the reduction in staff numbers will be broadly in line with the level of savings that we need to make—i.e. more than 16%."[36]

23.  In January 2011 the World Service announced that "there will be post closures of 650 by 2014/15 from a total of 2400 staff. It is proposed to close 480 of those posts during the next financial year 2011/2012." The World Service states that due to the creation of new posts the net number of post closures during 2011/12 is expected to be 433.[37] In March 2011 we asked the Trade Union Representatives their views on both the job losses and the process by which those figures were reached. Luke Crawley of BECTU praised the BBC's handling of the consultation process, telling us that:

I think I can say that they have been fairly detailed, extensive and—I have to say—over a relatively short period of time, for lots of good reasons. I think the BBC has made serious efforts to ensure that consultation is proper and adequate. At the moment, I don't think we would have any complaint about what is happening. We are less happy about the outcome, but the BBC is consulting properly.[38]

However, both Mr Crawley and Jeremy Dear of the NUJ drew our attention to the fact that none of the proposed job losses would take place at a senior management level.[39]

24.  We asked the World Service where the announced 480 job losses in the coming financial year would be targeted and which grades of staff would be made redundant. We were told that before the Spending Review senior managers had "already taken a reduction of 25%" and as a result no senior management changes had occurred as a result of the Spending Review.[40] Mr Thomas provided us with more information on exactly where the forthcoming 480 losses would be targeted. He said that these job losses would be shared evenly between junior management and non-management:

I had a look at the split by grades and, if you look at grades 9 and above, which is where people start getting management responsibility, 15% of the post closures were within that category. When you compare that to the spread in the total population [in the BBC as a whole] it came out at 15.6%.[41]

Mr Thomas characterised Grade 9 as "quite junior".[42]

25.  We conclude that the announced loss of 650 out of 2,400 jobs in the World Service represents 27% of the total workforce, and that this level of job loss is disproportionate to the 16% cut in World Service funding under the Spending Review settlement.

Employees at risk

26.  The residence status of some employees of the World Service is dependent on their continued employment with the BBC. Witnesses raised concerns with us that if these journalists were made redundant they would have their residence permit revoked and would be returned to their home countries where their lives would potentially be in danger. Jeremy Dear told us that:

You have here journalists broadcasting news about foreign Governments, some dictatorial and tyrannical, in different parts of the world. You then have the possibility that they lose their job and their visa, as a result being sent back [...] our fear is that we will get some situations—it might be China, Russia or some of the countries in Africa and so on—where you have a very real danger of people being sent back to countries that can appear vaguely democratic on the surface, but actually for journalists are very dangerous.[43]

27.  During the exchanges in the House on the Urgent Question on 26 January, the Foreign Secretary was asked about journalists currently working in the UK who may, on losing their jobs, be required to return to their own countries, at possible risk to themselves. Mr Hague replied that:

There should be no question of that happening. We have well established procedures, over which the Home Secretary presides, to ensure that people do not go back to danger in their home countries. That is a separate issue, but if it comes up at all, and if there is any danger of those things happening, Ministers will want to make sure that they do not.[44]

28.  During our evidence session on 9 March, Luke Crawley told us that BECTU estimated that there were 277 people whose residence in the UK was dependent on their continued employment with the World Service. Of those, he claimed that "around half" could face repatriation. While BECTU welcomed the Foreign Secretary's 26 January assurance, Mr Crawley called for further, more concrete action from the FCO.[45]

29.  Also on 9 March, Peter Horrocks commented on the status of staff who could face repatriation as a result of job losses at the World Service:

We are still in the relatively early stages of the process of losing the staff who unfortunately will need to leave. We have done the analysis of the numbers of people who are on various different visas and permissions to remain [...] As we get nearer to identifying individuals, we will be able to assess whether that is working in terms of the response from officials within the Border Agency and Home Office and so on.[46]

Mr Horrocks called the Foreign Secretary's reassurance "very helpful".[47]

30.  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.

Closure of short-wave services

31.  Many witnesses criticised the decision to close shortwave transmission in seven languages, and leave those services reliant on online and new media distribution. The NUJ claimed that "up to 40% of BBCWS listeners use short-wave transmission" while for non-English services, the BBC's mobile and internet audiences are just 6% of the size of the radio audience. They estimated that the World Service currently spent only around £7 million a year on short-wave distribution.[48]

32.  The NUJ also argued that the "internet can be turned off at any time by repressive regimes" and the "BBC is constantly removed from FM for political reasons in places such as Sri Lanka [...] short wave radio guarantees editorial independence".[49] They added that "short-wave broadcasts that cannot be intercepted and which can be listened to in safety will be abandoned in favour of a policy that allows local censors across the world to decide what the BBC can broadcast or publish".[50]

33.  An example of the vulnerability of internet services to action by a repressive government was given during the recent disturbances in Egypt: at 10.30 GMT on 27 January 2011, traffic to and from Egypt across 80 internet providers around the world dropped precipitously, as the result of the simultaneous withdrawal of services by Egyptian internet service providers. The graph below indicates the extent to which this occurred.[51] Some days earlier the Egyptian government had suppressed access to Facebook and Twitter. Other countries, including China, Iran, Thailand and Tunisia, have cut off access to news websites and social networking services during periods of unrest.[52]

Source: "Protests in Egypt: as they happened", The Guardian, 28 January 2011

BBC Hindi

34.  Under the plans announced on 26 January, the BBC Hindi shortwave service was scheduled to close in March 2011. According to World Service figures, this reduction in output would have saved £680,000 and seen the closure of 30 equivalent full-time posts.[53] There was disquiet about this decision. A staff member of the Hindi service, Naleen Kumar, told us that the planned cuts in the service would save only around 5 pence per listener, adding that there "is no other medium to provide the Hindi Service news and current affairs programmes to listeners in India as the FM radio is not open to non-state broadcasters for news", and that therefore the announcement meant that "the World Service is pulling out completely from news and current affairs radio in Hindi".[54] Marianne Landzettel, another employee of BBC Hindi, questioned the alleged savings that the closure of the service would bring. She told us that the projected saving has been reduced to "just £300,000".[55] A group including radio broadcaster Mark Tully and Booker prizewinner Arundhati Roy released a statement arguing that "For nearly seven decades BBC Hindi radio has been a credible source of unbiased and accurate information, especially in times of crisis, [and therefore] we strongly urge the UK Government to rethink its decision to severely cut the funding for the BBC World Service to enable the continued transmissions of BBC Hindi on shortwave radio."[56]

35.  Following this public criticism, the World Service announced a temporary reprieve for the Hindi service. On 7 March 2011, it stated that following approaches from commercial parties with "alternative funding proposals", the World Service would maintain an hour of current affairs broadcasting in Hindi on shortwave radio, for an interim period. However, the situation remains that if alternative commercial funding cannot be found, the Hindi service is still scheduled to close by March 2012.[57]

36.  In our session on 9 March, Peter Horrocks told us that the decision to close the shortwave transmission of BBC Hindi, despite the relatively large listening figures, "was largely taken because of the very rapid falls that have been happening in shortwave listening in India—very steep declines in recent years". Jim Egan, Controller, Strategy and Distribution, BBC Global News, provided us with figures setting out the decline in the BBC Hindi shortwave audience. He told us that in 2007 the audience was 19 million, compared to just under 11 million now.[58] While accepting that the budget reductions set out in the Spending Review had accelerated the process somewhat, he said that "the audience has been falling by more than the 10 million figure organically because of the change in listening habits."[59] While stressing the "organic" nature of this decline—with audiences increasingly listening via other media—the World Service did acknowledge that the planned closure would result in a loss of 10.9 million listeners.[60]

37.  We asked the Foreign Secretary how the decision to close the BBC Hindi shortwave service matched the agreed criteria for closures, particularly given the strategic importance of India and the cost-effectiveness of the service. Mr Hague responded that these decisions were ultimately the responsibility of the World Service management, but that he had "no reason, having looked at it, to think that they are making the wrong decisions with the resources available".[61] He said that the proposed involvement of local commercial partners, as suggested by the World Service on 7 March, could be a model for the future. He told us that that the temporary reprieve "will give the service a chance that the proposed self-sustaining model will work. It will not necessarily close in a year, but now they need the encouragement to make sure that this new model succeeds."[62]

38.  The Coalition Government has described an improvement in bilateral relations with India as one of its priorities. The Prime Minister led a high-level delegation to India in July 2010, accompanied by six UK government ministers and a delegation of 58 leaders from UK business, sports, education, arts and culture and local government.[63] The FCO has stated that "the Government is committed to a special relationship with India, one that reflects our deep and historic ties and recognises India's strategic importance".[64]

39.  We conclude that the proposed closure of the BBC Hindi shortwave service is a matter of deep concern. The decision to offer the service a limited and temporary reprieve, contingent on alternative commercial sources of funding being found, offers only partial reassurance. We note that India is a major rising economic power and that the Government has professed its wish to improve bilateral relations as a priority. We further note that the estimated savings from reducing World Service operations in India, at £680,000, are small in relation to the nearly 11 million listeners that will be lost. While we welcome the temporary reprieve of the BBC Hindi shortwave service while alternative funding models are explored, and we recognise that the service's audience is likely to continue to fall as a long-term trend, we recommend that the World Service re-examine the limited "temporary" reprieve and commit itself to longer-term support for an unreduced BBC Hindi shortwave service.

BBC China

40.  The World Service stated that the decision to stop all of BBC China's radio output in Mandarin was taken "due to the jamming of short wave radio signals by the Chinese authorities over decades," as a result of which "BBC Chinese's radio programming in Mandarin struggles to make a lasting impact and reaches a very small audience given the size of the target population".[65] The World Service estimate that this decision will entail the loss of 595,000 listeners and the closure of 8 equivalent full-time posts, for a saving of £413,000.[66] Provision in Mandarin, Cantonese and English will continue via online and mobile media.

41.  The World Service attributed BBC Mandarin's relatively low listening figures to issues of both supply and demand. Blocking and jamming activities by the Chinese authorities hinder potential listeners, mainly in urban areas; and in those rural areas which are able to access shortwave transmissions, listening figures remain low. The World Service told us that, as a result "it has not been possible to get the sort of impact for our Mandarin broadcasts that merits the expenditure that we have committed to it".[67] Mr Keith Perron, the owner of PCJ Media/Radio based in Taiwan, questioned the World Service's view that the BBC Mandarin service had lacked "impact". He noted his experiences after the Sichaun Earthquake of 2008 when a "number of people came to ask me if I had a shortwave radio so they could listen to the BBC to find out what was happening with the relief efforts".[68]

42.  The World Service told us that, "the service will refocus away from radio to concentrate on its online provision".[69] However, in June 2010, the Chinese government published a strategy paper asserting its right to censor the internet inside its own borders: "Laws and regulations clearly prohibit the spread of information that contains content subverting state power, undermining national unity [or] infringing upon national honour and interests [...] Within Chinese territory the internet is under the jurisdiction of Chinese sovereignty. The internet sovereignty of China should be respected and protected."[70] There are many examples of people in China being arrested for accessing internet pages deemed off-limits by the Chinese authorities.[71]

43.  There is concern that the World Service may have difficulty in providing a widely accessible objective news service within China, maintaining its independence from the Chinese authorities and avoiding political pressure, if it switches to a wholly online Mandarin service. The NUJ quoted an unnamed Chinese journalist as having said:

the Chinese political system is still the same, and alternative political views are hard to find. Just one example: during the award-giving ceremony for last year's Nobel Peace prize, and because the winner was a Chinese dissident, the Chinese media was ordered not to report it, and the foreign media like satellite television have been blocked [...] and yet if people have a short-wave radio, they can still hear the most moving and inspiring ceremony and speeches via BBC Mandarin broadcast.[72]

The World Service assured us that they will be introducing "new circumvention technology that helps users on the internet to get round some of the blocks put in the so-called great firewall of China".[73]

44.  We asked the Foreign Secretary how the World Service's decision to abandon short-wave service in China would impact on the Chinese people's ability to access independent, impartial news. Mr Hague responded that the online audience in China was growing, and that the decision to concentrate on online provision would also allow communication with "vast numbers of Mandarin Chinese speakers outside of China". He stated that "with the limited resources available, that is the sensible way to go".[74]

45.  We conclude that the decision to close BBC China's short-wave output in Mandarin does not meet the criteria for service closures set out by the BBC and the Foreign Secretary, particularly the criterion regarding the "strategic importance of the countries they serve and the need of their populations for independent, impartial news". The shift from short-wave to online services in China will leave World Service transmissions vulnerable to action taken by the Chinese government to suppress or block internet traffic. Although the number of shortwave listeners may be in gradual decline, the underlying strength of shortwave transmission remains that it is much harder to turn off, block or criminalise compared to online provision. We recommend that the World Service should commit itself to longer-term support for an unreduced BBC China short-wave service in Mandarin.

BBC Arabic

46.  Of the 480 announced job losses scheduled to occur in 2011-12, 60 posts will be lost in the BBC Arabic service. This is the single largest concentration of job losses in the World Service, amounting to nearly 25% of all its job losses in language services.[75] In March 2011, in the midst of mass political protest, political change and instability in the region, Peter Horrocks highlighted the apparent desire of protesters in Cairo and Bahrain to tune into the BBC Arabic service. He said that:

You can see through the Arabic service, through both the traditional delivery through radio—we are retaining and sustaining the shortwave for radio—as well as the investment in television and online, whose figures have doubled in recent weeks, the importance of and the need for what the World Service does.[76]

Mr Horrocks went on to describe BBC Arabic as a "priority service".[77]

47.  Given these statements, we asked Mr Horrocks whether the World Service regretted announcing 60 job losses in the Arabic service. We noted that the FCO had increased the number of its staff assigned to the region in the short-term and had suggested to us that recent events would have long-term implications for the Department's priorities.[78] Mr Horrocks conceded that the changes would weaken the BBC's ability to cover the region:

If these changes had happened six months earlier, we clearly would have had fewer journalists in Egypt; for instance, the radio journalists who have been brilliantly contributing to our coverage. You may have used the BBC live page on News Online, which has this amazing updated rolling information about what's happening in North Africa. A large amount of the information in that is being provided by the BBC Arabic journalists, so, of course, losing that number of journalists would mean that we are less able to cover that story.[79]

Mr Horrocks held out no prospect that the World Service would rethink these post closures, stating that "If I were to say we will rescind all those job losses within the Arabic service, I would have to find another 60 posts across the piece and that would be very significant". He was also hopeful that developments in the Middle East would see a change in media organisations and a loosening of restrictions, and that the BBC could work closely in partnership with, and providing support to, these bodies.[80]

48.  Speaking to us the following week, on 16 March, the Foreign Secretary commented that for the 'core FCO' the recent dramatic developments in the Arab world had:

already required a diversion of resources—the Middle East and North Africa department has grown considerably over the past few weeks in terms of the number of people in the Foreign Office devoted to it. I think that that might turn out to be a permanent change for the next decade. Of course, we will have to see what happens over the coming months, but if this is as important for world affairs as I was arguing at the beginning of our meeting, it requires a greater proportion of the energy and manpower of British foreign policy to be devoted to it.[81]

49.  We conclude that it is unfortunate that the World Service has announced 60 job losses in its BBC Arabic Service, just as North Africa and the Middle East look likely to play an even greater role in foreign affairs, and as events are occurring which call for the provision within this region of high-quality, objective journalism and news coverage. As with the closures to the Chinese and Hindi services, we do not see how this change meets the agreed criteria, particularly those concerning the strategic importance of the countries they serve and the impact of BBC services in those markets.

50.  While we accept that the World Service could not have anticipated these events, we conclude that they require a reconsideration of the announced changes. We note that the 'core FCO' has responded to recent events in the Arab world by diverting considerable resources to the region, and we recommend that the World Service re-order its priorities along the same lines. The World Service should commit itself to providing enhanced resources to BBC Arabic as required by the recent and continuing political developments in the region.

29   HC Deb, 26 January 2011, col 13WS; "English for the Caribbean" refers to dialects of the English language spoken in the Caribbean. Back

30   "BBC World Service cuts outlined to staff", BBC News Online, 26 January 2011, and Ev 38 Back

31   Ev 31-32, Q 1 Back

32   "Broadcasting Agreement for the Provision of the BBC World Service", Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the British Broadcasting Corporation, paras 6 and 9,, accessed 18 March 2011 Back

33   Ev 41-42, para 20 Back

34   Letter, William Hague to Sir Michael Lyons, 21 January 2011, page 1. Placed in the House of Commons Library. Back

35   Letter, Sir Michael Lyons to William Hague, 12 January 2011, page 2. Placed in the House of Commons Library. Back

36   Q 69-70 Back

37   Ev 31-36, Q 11 Back

38   Q 28 Back

39   Q 29 Back

40   Q 70  Back

41   Q 72 Back

42   Q 75 Back

43   Q 26 Back

44   HC Deb, 26 January 2011, col 303 Back

45   Q 23 Back

46   Q 69 Back

47   Q 69 Back

48   Ev 23-28, para 20 Back

49   Ev 23-28, para 16 Back

50   Ev 23-28, para 44 Back

51   "Protests in Egypt: as they happened", The Guardian, 28 January 2011; "How Egypt shut down the internet", The Telegraph, 28 January 2011 Back

52   "How Egypt shut down the internet", The Telegraph, 28 January 2011 Back

53   Ev 38 Back

54   Ev w32-33, para 1  Back

55   Ev w16 Back

56   "Radio legend joins battle to keep BBC Hindi on air", The Times, 18 February 2011 Back

57   "World Service statement on BBC Hindi", BBC World Service press release, 7 March 2011 Back

58   Q 47 Back

59   Q 44-46 [Horrocks] Back

60   Q 50 Back

61   Developments in UK Foreign Policy, Transcript of session of 16 March 2011, Q 70 Back

62   Ibid., Q 71 Back

63  Back

64  Back

65   Ev 31-36, Question 2 Back

66   Ev 38 Back

67   Q 90 [Mr Egan] Back

68   Ev w3-4, para 9 Back

69   Ev 31-36, Question 2 Back

70   See: "China Defends Internet Censorship", BBC News Online, 8 June 2010 Back

71   Ev w3-4, para 7 Back

72   Ev 23-28, para 29 Back

73   Q 90 [Mr Horrocks] Back

74   Developments in UK Foreign Policy, Transcript of session of 16 March 2011, Q 66 Back

75   Ev 31-35, Question 11  Back

76   Q 34 Back

77   Q 54 Back

78   Developments in UK Foreign Policy, Transcript of session of 16 March 2011, Q 47 [Simon Fraser] Back

79   Q 78 Back

80   Q 79 Back

81   Developments in UK Foreign Policy, Transcript of session of 16 March 2011, Q 47 Back

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Prepared 13 April 2011