Implications of BBC World Service Cuts - Foreign Affairs Committee Contents

Written evidence from Ailsa Auchnie, Senior Broadcast Journalist, BBC World Service Newsroom

I am writing to you in your capacity as Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee regarding the swingeing cuts to the BBC World Service following the reductions in funding by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

I have worked for the World Service for 24 years, but I am not writing because I might be one of the 650 people who will lose their jobs. I want to highlight the impact these cuts will have on the people we serve around the world. Not only will five language services go altogether—some of them in what's still a very volatile part of Europe—but seven more will be allowed to wither by existing only on news websites—including Russian and Mandarin Chinese. We will lose an estimated 30 million listeners in one fell swoop.

This will deprive millions of an essential source of unbiased, accurate information. The World Service has proved vital in crises. The Economist recalled recently that Mikhail Gorbachev used the BBC as his most reliable source of news when resisting the August 1991 coup. Aung San Suu Kyi says she listened to the BBC World Service every day during her detention by the Burmese military, and continues to listen to it daily since her release.

The World Service has been a lifeline for people in times of trouble. The loss of shortwave will deprive the poor in Africa and India of information that they cannot get anywhere else, since they have no access to the internet. The end to BBC Hindi radio means the loss of a regular weekly audience of more than 10 million, with a saving of less than half a million pounds. At a time when Britain is seeking closer engagement with India, the decision to cut off so many listeners is surely a mistake.

The Egyptian government's shutdown of the internet and mobile phone networks during the present uprising shows the strategic error of the BBC World Service's planned retreat from shortwave radio.

The World Service, while always adhering to strict standards of impartiality, is one of Britain's best ambassadors. It brings our nation an enormous amount of goodwill for a very small financial outlay. This is appreciated by the British public. In a Chatham House survey, the BBC was ranked equal to the British Armed forces as "serving Britain's interests around the world". This "soft power", which has been carefully nurtured over so many years, is now seriously under threat.

I understand that the Foreign Affairs Committee is holding an inquiry into the World Service cuts. I urge you to use your influence to help put a stop to them. It is not too late; the damage has not yet been done. Please take my observations into account in your inquiry.

The money needed for the World Service is not a huge sum. It can surely be found within the Foreign Office or other budgets that have not been cut disproportionately. Please help us stop the government doing irreversible harm to the World Service, to people's right to impartial news, and to Britain's standing and influence in the world.

9 February 2011

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Prepared 13 April 2011