Written evidence from Jonathan Stoneman |
WORLD SERVICE CUTSTHE EUROPEAN SERVICES
I wish to make some points specifically about the
proposed closure of the Albanian, Macedonian and Serbian services.
I write as a former editor of the Macedonian and Croatian Services
1998-2002 (Croatian was closed in 2005).
When the World Service closed 10 language services
in 2005, to pay for Arabic Television, the principal argument
for closing eight European services was that the countries which
had joined the European Union had no further need of a BBC presencePolish,
Hungarian, Czech etc were all closed on that basis. Whatever people
thought of that decision, it had a certain logic (though subsequent
and current events in Hungary suggest that membership of the EU
isn't necessarily a guarantee of good behaviour!)
Although Albania, Kosovo (where both Albanian and
Serbian are official languages), Macedonia and Serbia are all
candidates for membership of the European Union, they are all
a long way from that goal. None yet has a fully functioning or
free media. In all four places, the BBC retains a strong influence,
measured not only in listener numbers, but in influencethe
way the region's media pay attention to what the BBC says and
how it says it. In the case of Albania the media take obvious
sidesthere is little middle ground. The announcement of
the Albanian Service's closure came in a week of strife and violence
on Tirana's streetsthe BBC was practically the only radio
outlet reporting these events in even-handed terms. The pro-government
stations concentrate on the violence perpetrated against the police,
while the anti-government stations focus on police brutality.
In the other countries, similarly partisan programming means there
is a place for professional and impartial reporting provided by
In this part of the Balkans, the BBC is really the
only respected broadcaster capable of bringing the rest of the
world into people's living rooms. On the day of the bombing of
Domodedovo Airport in Moscow, the BBC was the only Albanian language
radio station willing and able to cover the story as a breaking
number one headline.
In Kosovowhere I am writing this note, as
a consultant to an EU-funded projectthere are many unresolved
problems that demand impartial reporting. The BBC would leave
a void. The view of journalists here is that the BBC forces them
to maintain their standardsthey know their listeners also
listen to the BBC, so they pay careful attention to stories and
the most appropriate way of covering them. With the BBC gone,
standards will inevitably fall.
One indication of the BBC's importance in Kosovo
was the reporting of the announcement of the World Service cuts
as headline news (item no.4 in the Kosovo running order all day).
A radio director I was meeting on the day pointed to the headline
on his station's website and called it a "terrible decision".
Although a secondary consideration, it is important
to note that the circulation of bright young journalists through
positions with the BBC in London and in the region contributes
to capacity-building in the media. They are well trained in BBC
standards, and learn a lot about the West, and about best practice
Although there is clearly huge financial pressures
on the World Service, it is worth pointing out the relatively
low costs of these three services. Although figures must have
gone up since I was directly involved in the European Region of
World Service, Macedonian is just five people with a budget of
about £300,000. Serbian would be 12 people and about £800,000,
and Albanian is of similar size and cost. In the context of £47
million, and 640 posts, these three services are small beerbut
punch well above their weight in a continuously and notoriously
unstable part of Europe.
If these three services were spared, someone will
ask the inevitable questionwhere else would savings be
made? If I were in Mr Horrocks' position (or Mr Hague's for that
matter) I would look at the relatively large number of strategists
and marketing experts whose work must be diminishing as the number
of language services is reduced.
27 January 2011