Implications of the BBC World Service Cuts

Written evidence from BECTU

1 BECTU is the trade union for workers in the audiovisual and live entertainment sectors. We are a recognised trade union throughout the BBC, specifically including the World Service, in which hundreds of our members work. We therefore have a strong interest in this issue.

2 BECTU believes:

- that the World Service cuts are disproportionate and excessive, especially in the context of the lesser cuts to the rest of the FCO budget

- that the cuts will cause unnecessary harm not just to the staff who lose their jobs and to the audiences which lose their services but to the international standing of the UK

- that they should be reconsidered and renegotiated.

THE CUTS

3 We note that following the Government’s comprehensive spending review, the World Service is now facing a reduction in spending of 16% in real terms over the next 3 years; that this corresponds to 20% in cash terms; and that the cuts will be at a level of £46m per year by 2014.

4 We believe that this is a disproportionate and unnecessary level of cuts, especially in a context where the rest of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office budget is being cut by 10% or less in real terms.

5 We believe this excessive level of World Service cuts should be reconsidered and renegotiated within the overall FCO and Department for International Development budgets. We believe additional funds for the World Service can and should be made available, especially since the World Service budget constitutes just 0.5% of the Government’s total spending on international activities and since the World Service can also be considered as making a contribution to development assistance.

THE SERVICES

6 We note that as a result of the cuts, the BBC will close 5 services altogether (Albanian, Serbian, Macedonian, Portuguese for Africa, Caribbean English); cease broadcasts in Russia, Mandarin Chinese, Turkish, Spanish, Ukrainian, Azeri and Vietnamese); and cease short-wave services in Hindi (with a massive 10 million regular weekly listeners) Indonesia, Swahili, Kyrgyz and Nepali.

THE DAMAGE TO THE UK’S INTERNATIONAL STANDING

7 The World Service is currently the world’s most-recognised news service. However, the proposed cuts will lead to an estimated reduction of 30 million in the World Service audience. It will no longer be the leading international news provider by audience and will fall behind the Voice of America and affiliates.

8 The World Service is seen by the public as the organisation that does most to serve UK interests internationally. This is confirmed by surveys conducted by Chatham House and Populus. The Service is a key component of the UK’s ‘soft power’ and influence in the world – with an indirect but significant linkage to enhanced political and trade advantages.

9 The Service is of immense value to the populations covered, who benefit from a trusted source of news independent of local pressures. Broadcasting is still an essential source of information, education and entertainment in large areas where internet access is limited and literacy levels are still not high.

10 All of this is undermined by the cuts. Withdrawal from services and territories is likely to end the BBC’s presence forever, since relaunching would simply be too expensive and vital goodwill would have been lost. Far from having disproportionate influence on the world stage, the UK now risks punching below its weight internationally.

THE IMPACT ON JOBS

11 We face proposals to close 650 posts by 2014/15, constituting more than 25% of the 2,400 jobs at the World Service. These extend over all areas, including foreign language services, news-gathering, playout, finance, studio management and TV operations. 480 posts are due to be cut over the next 12 months.

12 We are specifically concerned about the impact on foreign language staff whose UK residence depends on their employment in the World Service and who face an uncertain – possibly unsafe – future if they are forced to return home.

13 As indicated above, we believe cuts on this level are disproportionate and unnecessary. They should be reconsidered.

UNDERLYING FACTORS

14 We have a broader level of disagreement with the extent and the pace of what we consider to be an ideologically-driven rather than economically-justified level of cuts in the Comprehensive Spending Review. Furthermore, we believe that while the Foreign Secretary has indicated support for a strong World Service, he has not defended it adequately – in notable contrast to the lesser level of cuts to be applied to the rest of the FCO budget.

15 However, we also believe that BBC management can be justifiably criticised. In our view, they have prematurely and weakly accepted a settlement on this issue. We believe that hundreds of World Service staff are now being asked to pay with their jobs for this ill-considered agreement.

CONCLUSION

16 We believe that World Service cuts on the level proposed are excessive, disproportionate and unjustified. They will cause unnecessary harm not just to the staff who lose their jobs and the audiences which lose their services, but to the international standing of the UK. They should now be reconsidered.

7 February 2011