Implications of the BBC World Service Cuts

Written evidence from Dennis Sewell

SUMMARY

· The Committee should look closely at the detail of changes announced by the BBC in the WS’s English language output.

· The cancellation of programmes such as Politics UK will result in a significant degradation of BBC World Service in English’s representation of Britain to the world.

· The changes announced may make it harder to retain public support for WS in the longer run.

· The savings made by cutting such programmes are tiny, but the effects are significant.

DENNIS SEWELL

Dennis Sewell is a freelance broadcaster and journalist. He currently presents the Politics UK programme on BBC World Service in English. Between 1986-2008 he was on the staff of BBC News working as a reporter, producer, editor and presenter of politics and current affairs programmes. Dennis Sewell declares a financial interest in the matters discussed in this submission.

1. In implementing its cuts to the English language output of the World Service, the BBC has made changes that will substantially alter the character of the service. Although it has stopped short of turning BBC World Service in English into a rolling-news network, it has moved some considerable distance in that direction. Arts programmes have been reduced to 20 minute segments and a suite of ‘built programmes’ including Politics UK have been scrapped.

2. Politics UK is a weekly, 30 minute programme explaining British politics, political culture and political institutions to the wider world. It enables listeners to come to understand concepts such as parliamentary democracy, the common law, and press freedom as well as reporting on topical political affairs. It combines clips from debates in the Commons and the Lords with interviews, discussions and features. Guests include MPs, MEPs, Peers, representatives of think-tanks, academics, and newspaper columnists and political editors.

3. The BBC World Service has traditionally maintained a balance between reporting stories from all around the world and representing Britain to the world. Programmes like Politics UK enable listeners in countries that are unfamiliar with our Western way of life to discover how a free society works and to come to understand our values. This is arguably just as important today as it was during the Cold War.

4. BBC management says that coverage of UK domestic politics will henceforth be the responsibility of news programmes. However, owing to the constraints of the daily news agenda, there is bound to be a loss of nuance and depth to the coverage of UK politics and most of the consideration of values, political culture and institutions will be lost altogether. News can never be an adequate substitute for specialist current affairs programming.

5. The taxpayers (and subsequently the licence-fee payers) who fund the World Service may well be willing to pay for a service that has a useful, soft-power, strategic role in explaining Britain and its values abroad. But if the BBC World Service tilts away from this mission, becoming little more than a free news service for expats and foreigners, then people will surely begin to resent paying for it. Taken altogether, the new schedule, with its expansion of World Have Your Say and From Our Own Correspondent and cancellation of Politics UK, appears to mark a decisive shift in the traditional balance – a shift away from representing Britain to the world, and towards reporting foreign events.

6. The English language service of the BBC World Services reaches an estimated global audience of 40 million.

7. The annual nominal budget for Politics UK is in the region of £160,000 - £200,000. Much of this is ascribed to overheads (share of rent at 4 Millbank etc.) and those sums will not actually be saved even if the programme is de-commissioned. The marginal cost of producing the programme is probably closer to £100,000. Only one full-time post (Editor) is associated with the programme. The presenters are freelance and work only two days per week. Little money will be saved by axing Politics UK. The impact on the quality and extent of coverage of British politics, however, will be significant.

I have focussed on Politics UK in this submission because I have personal experience of working on the programme. It may be that the points I have raised have a wider application.

10 February 2011