Written evidence from Sir John Tusa |
BBC WORLD SERVICE
SUBMISSION TO COMMONS FOREIGN AFFAIRS COMMITTEE
SIR JOHN TUSA, MANAGING DIRECTOR BBC WORLD SERVICE, 1986-92
- The context
- Impact on the BBCWS of being caught between CSR
cuts and BBC's Licence Fee Settlement
- Culling the language services will deprive the
BBCWS of its universal mission
- Effects of the cuts on the quality of journalism
- Impact of cuts on Britain's standing as an international
- Risks of moving away from short wave transmission
- The FCO's short-term goals versus the long-term
vision of BBCWS
- Inherent dangers for WS where both wider BBC
and BBC Trust lack understanding of its role
- Recommendations: transfer of small proportion
of DfID funds to make up WS deficitflow of free information
1. THE CONTEXT
1.1 The BBC World Service faces an acute crisis
because of the conjunction of two distinct but ultimately related
factors: the reduction in FCO funding as a result of the Comprehensive
Spending Review; and the decision, as part of the BBC's Licence
Fee settlement, to transfer entire responsibility for BBCWS funding
from the FCO to the BBC.
1.2 Each factor would create acute difficulties
for the BBCWS on its own: FCO budget cuts will lead to the loss
of language services, reduction of journalistic effort throughout
the BBCWS, reduction of transmitter time, narrowing of the broadcasting
footprint, and removal of the BBCWS service from some 30 million
listeners around the world. Transferring the budget costs of BBCWS
to the domestic licence fee is a historic organisational shift
whose impacteditorially and in governance termshas
not been addressed or perhaps understood.
2. THE FCO FUNDING
2.1 To lose 20% of its funding and to face the
loss of 25% of its staff must represent a severe settlement in
anyone's language. If the impact on a key national global institution
is to be seriously addressed, such reductions cannot be brushed
aside as "inevitable" and as "no worse than anybody
else's". On this basis, there is no need for further questioning,
no reason for an enquiry, no grounds for considering whether the
impact of the reduction will damage the BBCWS's ability to do
its job. The "everyone is suffering" statement may be
true but it does not constitute an argument; it shies away from
serious examination of the impact of these reductions on an important
part of the UK's international voice.
2.2 In any review of BBCWS broadcasting it is
too simplistic to identify the half dozen language services with
the smallest audiences and see them as ripe for a painless cull.
This approach has led to the loss of eleven language services
in less than a decade. Some churn in the BBCWS foreign language
portfolio is right and inevitable. But it must be accompanied
by the awareness that the marginal cost of an additional language
service is comparatively small and that international crises canand
dooccur in very small countries especially in a post-Cold
War world. Besides, language services cannot be turned on and
off like a tap in times of crisis. Audiences must be built up
over time; opportunistic responses to crises are seen as politically
2.3 Constantly cutting foreign language broadcasts
risks unbalancing the BBC's voice to the global audience, tilting
towards a position which seems to prioritise English-language
communication over that of the "home" languages. Abolishing
foreign language broadcasts sets BBCWS on a path where it only
broadcasts to countries deemed to be in a present or potential
state of crisis. Its long term success has been based on a universal
mission to broadcast unbiased news and information to as many
people as possible.
2.4 But the FCO's budget reductions go further.
The huge loss of 25% of BBCWS staff will have a significant and
damaging effect on the quality and quantity of the journalism
that has kept the BBCWS at the forefront of international broadcasting.
That position has been won over the last quarter of a century
by strengthening and expanding the journalism which originated
at and from the BBCWS itself. The language services cannot revert
to being slave-ish "translation services" for journalism
originated elsewhere; World Service English cannot decline into
a repeat network for BBC Radio Four favourites. That is not what
the world wants or needs, that is not what they have come to expect,
that is what they may end up getting: a significantly inferior
2.5 Since the Second World War BBCWS's reputation
as the trusted voice of international broadcasting has been recognised
as preeminent by audiences, other governments and other broadcasters.
Is the government content to see the BBCWS take second place to
the openly US Government directed Voice of America?
2.6 It is easy, too, to make assumptions about
the most effective means of distributing the BBCWS's broadcasts.
It has always used a variety of transmission methodsshort
wave as the great historic workhorse of international broadcasting;
medium wave where it was available and suitable; FM re-broadcasting
by local partners started in 1987 but very vulnerable to local
restrictions. Digital broadcasting has many attractions but is
limited in its availability; excessive reliance on it is as dangerous
as assuming that short wave is past its sell-by date.
2.7 Over the years, the shortcomings of being
part of the FCO's funding regime have become ever clearer and
have looked increasingly out of date. While steering clear of
editorial interferenceBBCWS has always been "editorially
independent"the FCO found it hard to resist trying
to impose its objectivesdiplomatic and often short termon
those of BBCWS, which must be journalistic and long term. The
FCO frequently urged the BBCWS to broadcast principally to "opinion
formers". BBCWS insisted that its audience was a large, often
a mass audience. In the streets of Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen who
are the opinion formers?
2.8 Fundamentally, the FCO has failed to appreciate
that international broadcasting operates on a "long cycle"
of influence rather than the "short cycle" demanded
of many foreign policy objectives. The results of truthful international
broadcasting may only be discovered a decade or more afterwards;
foreign policies often look to a shorter time frame. The intellectual
mismatch between FCO and BBCWS has revealed itself in the most
dramatic way in the scale of the budget cuts loaded onto the BBCWS.
3. THE BBC TRUST
3.1 Historically, the BBC Governors exercised
their responsibility for the BBCWS by including a former senior
diplomat among their number. Some such as Sir Curtis Keeble were
distinguished in their own right and effective as BBC Governors.
The BBC Trust, either in its composition or its inclination, has
shown no ability to understand BBCWS, to assess or value its place
within the BBC, or to defend its interests in a funding scrap
with the government. It has not continued the sub-committee set
up by BBC Governors after John Birt removed BBCWS programme-making
independence in 1995.
3.2 Once BBCWS becomes a full charge on the licence
fee, the BBC Trust must raise its game, increase its competence
and strengthen its composition to be able to respond to the significantly
different issues that funding the BBCWS adds to its existing portfolio
3.3 The same is true of the BBC's managerial
systems and executive organisation. At present they are not constituted
to include serious consideration of the BBCWS's needs, recognition
of its specific differences, or ability to give them the weight
they need. These shortcomings must be put right if the BBCWS's
potential is to be allowed to flourish in its new governance structure
within the BBC.
3.4 Unanswered questions about the BBCWS's new
place in the BBC world include:
3.4.1 What residual influence will the FCO keep
over BBCWS's broadcasting priorities?
3.4.2 Will BBCWS have a guaranteed ring-fenced
budget within the overall licence fee?
3.4.3 How will the BBC Trust and BBC Management
change their governance and membership to meet the new situation?
Will the former special sub-committee to oversee BBCWS programming
integrity be re-constituted?
3.4.4 How will the Chairman of the BBC Trust
and the Director General of the BBC explain to the domestic licence
payers that the arrival of BBCWS in the portfolio of services
is not a convenient milch cow from which funding can be diverted
to domestic programming but a service with its own legitimate
claims on the licence fee budget?
4. THE ALTERNATIVE
4.1 There is a strong case to be made for passing
a tiny part of the DfID budget to the BBCWS. When it comes to
capacity building, gender awareness or the myriad social programmes
on a micro scale funded by DfID, there can be no question but
that these activities are at least as well if not better performed
by BBCWS and on a far larger scale. Cutting the BBCWS and protecting
DfID makes no sense and could be achieved without impacting on
DfID core activities.
4.2 Transferring funds from DfID does not involve
taking money from starving children; it is a question of keeping
the flow of free information to millions of people, arguably the
biggest contribution to capacity building conceivable.
4.3 The loss of, say, £50 million from the
DfID budget will not make a significant even measurable impact
on its activities. The restoration of the recent £50 million
cut to BBCWS:
4.3.1 Keeps 30 million people in touch with free
and truthful information;
4.3.2 Maintains the supply of independent authoritative
and relevant BBCWS journalism to its global audience; and
4.3.3 Maintains short wave broadcasts to key
audiences for whom it is the principle means of reception.
5.1 The budget reductions imposed on the BBCWS
risk its reputation, its capacity to represent Britain internationally,
its ability to serve a large, diverse and influential international
5.2 Successful international broadcastingand
the BBCWS has been consistently the most successful exemplar of
the practicedemands long term goals, a constant broadcasting
presence, a sustained and trustworthy partnership. It cannot and
should not be shackled by the belief that broadcasting can be
micro-managed by concentrating on specific objectives in specific
5.3 The BBCWS's contribution to the projection
of Britain's soft power should be valued and compared with equivalent
expenditure by other departments working in similar areas of activity.
5.4 Only then can a balanced judgement be made
of the necessary and suitable efficiency savings to be made of
4 February 2011