Implications of the BBC World Service Cuts

Written evidence from the National Union of Journalists (NUJ)


1. The BBC World Service is a story of continuing success. Ten years ago it had 153 million regular radio listeners. Today, the figure is 180 million - representing one in every 25 adults in the world.

2. The National Union of Journalists (NUJ) believes the cuts the BBC is proposing would damage not only the World Service but also Britain’s national interest.

3. This is because the BBC World Service depends on two things - properly resourced journalism, and safe and secure transmission networks to broadcast its journalists’ work.

4. The cuts will mean:

a) Thirty-million short-wave listeners will no longer be able to hear the BBC World Service.

b) As many as another twenty-million could lose their signal if other changes being considered for English and twelve remaining shortwave services go ahead.

5. The impact of the cuts will severely damage the quality of BBC World Service journalism – especially in the core area of World Service News, in the Language Services and in BBC Monitoring.

Impact of the cuts on BBC World Service journalism

6. The World Service core news operation depends on about 120 journalists who work around the clock, twenty-four hours a day. A similar number produce high-quality current affairs programmes including Newshour and the World Today. The Europe Today programme, whose expertise is used throughout the BBC, is to disappear in the cuts. The Politics UK programme is also going.

7. The core news operation:

a) writes the news stories needed for the language services and the English network

b) provides and scripts sound and video material for use by language services

c) co-ordinates and liaises with foreign correspondents on behalf of programme makers

d) provides expertise in the form of Bush House-based specialist regional editors (who also generate news stories and voiced reports) and correspondents who provide global perspectives on diplomacy, security, politics and other issues.

8. Key correspondents and regional experts are among fifty posts essential to the World Service News operation scheduled to be cut over the next year. These losses, along with proposed radical changes in working practices, will mean a narrowing of the range of stories provided for English and Language Service outputs. They will add to the workloads at the BBC’s domestic radio and television networks and English-language World TV which currently rely heavily on our writing and expertise.

9. The BBC hopes to make further savings by allowing language service journalists to bypass the normal editorial controls and publish their stories directly into the BBC’s Electronic News and Production System, ENPS.

10. Bush House based correspondents and regional editors play a vital role in finding news, checking facts, interpreting and reporting. They provide essential support to the journalism of language services and help enforce consistent editorial standards across the World Service. We are particularly concerned that some Regional Editor roles will be reduced to Monday-to-Friday office hours while English and Language Service programming continues seven days a week - especially in areas in which the western concept of a "weekend" does not exist.

11. During one of the busiest times for output – overnight in Europe, morning in Asia – the task of liaising with foreign correspondents will be left to a single, junior journalist based at Television Centre. Other money-saving proposals include splitting the team directly responsible for producing and writing stories for news bulletins between Bush House and Television Centre.

12. We believe that if these measures go ahead the resultant lack of oversight will lead to broadcast errors and a loss in quality.

13. We believe that plans to merge the rump of the World Service News department with its domestic counterparts are flawed. World Service journalism is distinct.

14. One of our senior journalists wrote the following in a briefing paper about the cuts:

"It is a fact that BBC News focuses primarily on domestic events. That is what the licence payer expects. But when it comes to foreign news, the journalism coming out of Television Centre is often unsuitable for the World Service audience. What passes as a foreign story at Television Centre - stranded British tourists, a coach crash, and some celebrity adopting a new African baby - might not be news at all at the World Service. By the same token, the wars, floods and famines routinely covered by the World Service hardly ever figure in the running order of the BBC's News At Ten. Think how little foreign news, on average, pushes its way to the top of the BBC's domestic news outlets. Then ask yourself how the World Service, which is dependent entirely on foreign news to fill its 24-hours-a-day schedule, could possibly survive on such a meagre supply. That is the very real prospect once World Service journalists (those fortunate enough to survive the jobs abattoir) have been absorbed into BBC News."

15. As a result of the latest cuts and previous changes, core activities of many surviving language services will be based abroad – in Senegal, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Russia or Ukraine. We are concerned the BBC has not taken into account the pressures that can easily be exerted on journalists in certain countries. These have included the targeting of BBC language service journalists by foreign politicians and security services.

Impact of the cuts on distribution of World Service output

16. Although some audiences are migrating to local FM relays and internet services, only short-wave radio delivery guarantees our services reach our audience independently of local censorship. Local FM relays and internet services can be switched off at any time by repressive regimes if they don’t like what the BBC is putting out. The BBC is constantly removed from FM for political reasons in places such as Sri Lanka and parts of Africa. Many partner stations on FM across the Middle East do not carry BBC News bulletins. BBC World Television is frequently blanked out in China. Short-wave radio guarantees editorial independence. This is the argument that BBC management has failed to grasp.

17. The only justification for removing short-wave would be if either:

a) short-wave audiences had completely vanished; or

b) transmission costs on short-wave were prohibitively expensive.

18. Short-wave audiences are, however, still vast – up to forty per cent of our listeners still use it. When local FM relays and mobiles are censored (as in Egypt), and the internet closed down, the short-wave audience share is - of course - 100%.

19. For non-English services, the BBC’s mobile and internet audiences are just 6 % of the size of the current radio audience.

20. Short-wave is often still the cheapest way of reaching a mass audience. We understand that the BBC World Service currently spends only around £7 million a year on short-wave distribution, 3 per cent of the total World Service budget. FM networks are expensive.

21. The English service has a weekly audience of about 39 million, of whom 15 million listen on short-wave, 9.3 million on BBC FM relays and 16.2 million on independent FM partner stations. It’s hoped that distribution of streamed audio and podcasts of content via mobile phones will grow as devices become cleverer. But this option is not universally affordable. The BBC World Service is for rich and poor - the aspiring decision-makers as well as the established elites.

22. Even in the rich world, most people still find switching a radio on is a far more convenient way of hearing audio than using a mobile device or a computer. On the net, the BBC is just one of many possible sources. On short-wave, the World Service is the number one choice.

23. Digital short-wave which guarantees FM-like quality is also available. Properly resourced and marketed, this has the potential to reduce distribution costs massively. All India Radio – one of the world’s largest broadcasters – has recently begun trials.

Impact of the cuts on specific audiences

The NUJ is aware of other submissions which deal with some of the following issues in greater detail. These are areas which need better resources. Any further cuts to World Service core journalism would utterly destroy it. The World Service language services need additional funding to maintain their effectiveness.

Impact of the cuts on audiences in Africa

24. Many national broadcasters in Africa still use short-wave to reach their audiences so it makes little sense to phase out BBC short-wave transmissions. We dispute assertions that the FM network, mobile phones or the internet are a viable alternative in the short or medium term. We also think that the following factors have been ignored by the BBC:

a) Even where the BBC does broadcast on FM (in towns and more developed areas) it may be subject to restrictions. For example direct BBC relays are often taken off the air – most recently in Abidjan in Ivory Coast

b) Partner stations are likely to come under more pressure to remove news programmes at times of political tension. Countries such as Sudan and Ethiopia already tightly control the media, while Nigeria banned foreign news broadcasts on FM in 2004.

c) Rural dwellers and poorer people in most African countries will be completely cut off from BBC broadcasts if they are only on FM and the internet.

d) Satellite broadcasting over parts of Africa carries programming for Europe.

Impact of the cuts on audiences in South Asia

25. The former BBC Delhi correspondent, Mark Tully, says, "I fear the decision to stop short-wave and medium-wave transmissions of the Hindi service might reflect the mistaken, but widely-held, view that it’s only the new middle class in India who matter, those who can listen to radio broadcasts on computers and mobile phones." We agree. We also believe the following factors have been ignored by the BBC:

a) The BBC is abandoning ten million Hindi listeners in India. It will only provide a news service to 200,000 people who can afford computers.

b) Radio is still the way many Indians receive their news – especially in poor rural areas.

c) All India Radio has a monopoly of radio news and current affairs.

26. The BBC provides news for an FM radio network in Pakistan, but this operates under a broadcasting code which would not be acceptable here. Our colleagues have to be extremely careful about how they report certain topics including any relating to the army. Security is a real issue for language service staff in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.

Impact of the cuts on audiences in China

27. We dispute the BBC estimate for the size of the short-wave radio audience in China. Anecdotal evidence suggests that this audience is still in the millions - although it is of course impossible for outsiders to measure. Chinese officials themselves are reported to have estimated that a minimum of three- to four-million people listen weekly – a figure that they say excludes many rural areas. The BBC decision makes no sense when the following factors are taken into account:

a) China has a diverse but tightly-controlled media where dissent from the party line is not tolerated and can be severely punished.

b) More than 30 Chinese journalists are thought currently to be in prison for breaching official reporting guidelines.

c) China has set up the Great Firewall to keep its people isolated from world events and to prevent them freely accessing news and information on the internet. The BBC’s Chinese-language news website is blocked by the Great Firewall.

d) Recently hackers based in China broke into the servers of Google, briefly hijacking huge portions of it. Latest reports suggest that even the servers of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office have been hacked into.

e) China continues to jam BBC broadcasts. Jamming is expensive. If the audience was really that small, the authorities wouldn’t bother to jam the BBC.

28. BBC radio broadcasts still mean a great deal to the people of China. This is what one Chinese journalist has told us:

"The BBC Mandarin broadcast service has a long and highly respected history in China. It's not overstating to say that millions of people have grown up with it, and people still remember the iconic banner during the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, saying "Thank you, BBC". Throughout its existence, people listened with great eagerness and hunger in understanding what was going on in the world, and also in seeking an alternative view different from their own government. 

…. the Chinese political system is still the same, and alternative political views are hard to find. Just one example: during the award-giving ceremony for last year's Nobel Peace prize, and because the winner was a Chinese dissident, the Chinese media was ordered not to report it, and the foreign media like satellite television have been blocked....and yet if people have a short-wave radio, they can still hear the most moving and inspiring ceremony and speeches via BBC Mandarin broadcast....

…… There are other Mandarin broadcasting services from Germany, France, and USA, and I haven't heard they’re planning to sever their services. And what's more, the BBC is the most trusted and respected, and among no equals."

29. The BBC’s Chinese language service website is full of postings from people who have risked their own security to appeal for the radio service to continue.

Impact of the cuts on audiences in the Caribbean

30. If the cuts go ahead, the BBC Caribbean Service in English will cease broadcasting to the region at the end of March (along with a service in Spanish for Cuba).  The basis for this decision seems to be that the region is not important for foreign policy, and that the Caribbean service will not be missed as the region has a complex web of print and broadcast media. This fails to recognise that there is virtually no pan-Caribbean radio programming, as offered by the BBC Caribbean service, let alone the funding or the commercial will to provide it.

a) With the dismantling of the BBC Caribbean Service and its specialist team of independent Caribbean staff, a regional broadcast perspective will disappear for ever.

b) It is the sole vehicle offering the region the chance to hear on a daily basis about events from a broader perspective and sometimes hold politicians to account.

c) Its withdrawal would represent a decline in the UK’s role, while countries such as China, Brazil and India are trying to develop a strategic relationship with the region. 

Impact of the cuts on audiences in Russia and the Former Soviet Union

31. Russian is spoken not only in Russia itself but in many of the countries of the former Soviet Union, including Ukraine and the states of Central Asia.

32. BBC short-wave and AM transmissions in Russia will close if these proposals go ahead. Virtually all remaining domestic radio and television broadcasts in Russia are now fervently pro-government. The BBC argues that the internet is the best way to deliver news to Russia. However the following points must be taken into account:

a) Russian social networks have been bought out by oligarchs with links to the government

b) Software has been installed in the servers of all ISPs that allow the authorities to monitor everyone’s web browsing and emails.

c) Some independent sites and those with close ties to the opposition have been rendered inaccessible through cyber-attacks or have been the object of police harassment.

d) Estonia was recently subjected to a massive cyber-attack which showed the sophistication of Russia’s ability to control the web.

33. It is clear that mechanisms that could result in greater control and censorship of the internet are being put in place in Russia.

34. The media is tightly controlled in Central Asian countries – where Russian is widely spoken -- especially in Uzbekistan. The government of President Karimov continues to block domestic access to critical international websites, and jams foreign broadcasters including the BBC.

35. We believe the decision to cut radio broadcasts in Russian and some central Asian languages needs to be reviewed.

36. Ukraine still has one of the largest short-wave audiences in Europe. Nearly a million people will lose their signal in a few weeks’ time. Abandoning so many people makes no sense.

Impact of the cuts on BBC Monitoring

37. BBC Monitoring provides open-source information to the British and other governments, news gatherers including the BBC, academics and commercial customers, reporting on events in the words of the (often state-controlled) media of the countries where they happen. The NUJ believes the latest cuts to its budget threaten irreversible damage and are a saving too far.

38. BBC Monitoring has been absorbing rising costs through efficiency savings at an
average rate of 7 per cent each year since 2001, while being expected to maintain the same level of service. Last autumn it was suddenly ordered to strip a further £1m from its budget. In the next two years stakeholder income will shrink by 18 per cent, while costs are forecast to rise by 10 per cent.

39. At a time when the UK is reducing its physical presence abroad, the information provided by BBC Monitoring often serves to confirm or cast doubt on intelligence from other sources - even in the age of the Internet. The proposed cuts, if implemented, will mean that staff who monitor entire regions – including Latin America, Europe and the Asia-Pacific will no longer be based in the UK.

40. BBC Monitoring's primary customer is the British government. We believe that the editorial staff best able to identify and work to meet the British national interest, whatever their background, are more likely to be domiciled in the UK. We also query whether it is appropriate to fund BBC Monitoring from the licence fee from 2013 when the BBC Charter has little to say about Monitoring's activities.


41. We believe the changes agreed between the BBC and the government will cost this country dearly. The plan is being presented as a response to the deficit. But it also represents a massive pruning of one of the BBC’s core activities – radio. These plans could easily have been drawn up in Beijing as a way of reducing the global effectiveness of the BBC and Britain.

42. FM broadcasting while providing good sound quality is subject to political interference.

43. Short-wave broadcasts that cannot be intercepted and which can be listened to in safety will be abandoned in favour of a policy that allows local censors across the world to decide what the BBC can broadcast or publish.

44. To prevent this happening we recommend:

a) that the BBC draw up a new international broadcasting strategy which has at its heart a commitment to restore and aggressively market direct, secure transmissions to our listeners, including a commitment to maintain short-wave broadcasting and improve the audibility of the signal. A key condition of any FM partnership should be the carrying of uncensored BBC News bulletins.

b) the number of broadcast streams available to World Service listeners in English is reduced.

c) that some of the money allocated by the BBC Director-General Mark Thompson to help with the cost of the proposed reorganisation of the World Service be used instead to ring-fence basic core news services for 2010/2011 and offset the cuts to the language services.

d) that the £7.7m returned to the FCO budget early last year be given back to the World Service and used to sustain key services.

e) that the BBC examine the possibility of releasing additional funds by lengthening the repayment period of the bonds used to finance capital projects – including W1, Salford and Pacific Quay.

f) the World Service is acknowledged to be one of the best things about the BBC and Britain. The cuts proposed include 16 per cent of its £267m government grant over the next five years, during which time the international aid budget will increase by 37 per cent to over £11bn. The BBC World Service has a unique role in international relations and services could be saved by providing a fraction of the aid budget set against very clear development goals. By virtue of its core activity of providing reliable news and information to many of the world’s poorest countries, the BBC World Service plays a substantial role in supporting development goals. Free and independent media are essential to effective governance; they promote accountability and can help bolster fragile states. These are recognised prerequisites for economic development and welfare. FCO believes £25m of World Service expenditure counts as Overseas Development Assistance, but FCO or DFID have not provided funding for that. If limited DFID funding were provided for dedicated services that met development purposes, World Service could avoid damaging cuts and invest in new services that could contribute to the stabilisation of Pakistan and Afghanistan, help prevent radicalisation in sub-Saharan Africa and maintain the BBC’s presence in rural India. The DFID budget is increasing over the period by an average of £3.5bn pa. £50m for WS would be less than 1.5% of the average annual increase in development spending and could be targeted to fully qualify towards the development target.

g) This might be the case for the Caribbean Service, Portuguese for Africa, and also the costs of short wave Swahili and to the Great Lakes.

h) that work on fully implementing the cuts be stopped for a period of six months while alternative plans are considered, and that Parliament allocate additional funding to allow this to happen.

i) that the Committee bring forward its hearings. Time is an issue because decisions will be taken within the next few weeks which will be hard to reverse.

45. We have already endured many years of savings. The proposed 650 proposed job cuts will result in a noticeable drop in quality in the English and Language services while cutting off millions of loyal radio listeners. Intervention is necessary to secure the free flow of accurate information to the places where it is urgently needed, and to preserve Britain’s standing and influence in the world. This is a common cause for all of us.

11 February 2011