Implications of BBC World Service Cuts - Foreign Affairs Committee Contents

Written evidence from Jonathan Stoneman


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 presence—Polish, 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 influence—the 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 sides—there is little middle ground. The announcement of the Albanian Service's closure came in a week of strife and violence on Tirana's streets—the 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 the BBC.

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 Kosovo—where I am writing this note, as a consultant to an EU-funded project—there 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 standards—they 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 in radio-journalism.

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 beer—but 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 question—where 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

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