Implications of the BBC World Service Cuts

Written evidence from Sir John Tusa




· 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 broadcaster

· 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 deficit – flow of free information equals capacity-building

· Conclusion


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 impact – editorially and in governance terms - has not been addressed or perhaps understood.


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 can – and do – occur 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 motivated.

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 product.

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 methods – short 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 interference – BBCWS has always been "editorially independent" – the FCO found it hard to resist trying to impose its objectives – diplomatic and often short term – on 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.


3.1 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 of responsibilities.

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?


4.1 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;

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 audience.

5.2 Successful international broadcasting – and the BBCWS has been consistently the most successful exemplar of the practice – demands 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 target areas.

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 the BBCWS.

4 February 2011