Its many supporters say the BBC World Service is more vital than ever, so how come it remains strapped for cash? Asks Raymond Snoddy
The headlines surrounding the BBC World Service could hardly be more worrying. Of late, the news has been about job losses, service cuts, shrinking income and the danger of being outgunned by big-spending foreign rivals.
The BBC itself issued a stark warning recently about the challenges facing what many view as a unique UK asset, in a report on SThe Future of NewsT.
Last year, James Harding, the BBC’s Director of News and Current Affairs, told the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee that the World Service budget would be maintained at £245m in 2014/15, up from £238.5m the previous year. In 2011/12, the figure was £255m.
SThe World Service faces a choice between decline and growth,T the report argued. SIf the UK wants the BBC World Service to remain valued and respected, an ambassador for Britain’s values and an agent of soft power in the world, then the BBC is going to have to commit to growing the World Service and the Government will have to recognise this,T it added.
Everywhere you look, the World Service is facing more competition. Russia Today (RT), is believed to be increasing its global budget by 40%, to around £180m, in 2015. And, according to the BBC report, China Central Television (CCTV) received nearly $7bn over three years to fund its international broadcasting operations.
And then there is the proliferation of Arabic television news channels in the Middle East.
In October, Fran Unsworth became the first woman to run the BBC World Service Group in its 82-year history.
She acknowledges the scale and complexity of the task she faces, even though overall reach, including BBC World and BBC.com, tops 265 million per week.
SThe main challenge is whether we are going to have enough money to do what it is we think we need to do,T says Unsworth. SThe other major challenge is really responding to the way that consumption habits are changing throughout the world, and changing at such different speeds in different countries and areas of the world.T
Unsworth’s two predecessors at the World Service – Peter Horrocks and Richard Sambrook – agree with her that, on balance, the 2010 deal with the Government that gave the BBC financial responsibility for the World Service was an improvement. Until then, the service was funded by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
UK governments did not try to interfere with the editorial content of the World Service – beyond, perhaps, a raised eyebrow at a cocktail party. Even so, it has become a lot easier to persuade foreign governments, diplomats and listeners of the service’s editorial independence now that it is funded from the licence fee.
Less helpfully, the World Service must now compete for funds with other parts of the BBC, rather than awaiting the outcome of squabbles between Whitehall departments.
Sambrook says that, in his experience, few in the upper reaches of the corporation truly understand the World Service. They don’t see what makes it distinctive, or how thinly the resources of the language services are already stretched.
SThe worry is that, at some level, it comes down to how important the Hausa service is versus Newsnight, let alone Strictly Come Dancing,T says Sambrook. He fears that the World Service could lose out in this fight for resources.
Despite the difficulties, he believes that the case for a properly funded World Service is gaining ground. This is partly thanks of the rise of competitors such as Russia Today and its Chinese rival, CCTV News.
SA well-resourced, solid, impartial service, where the world can talk to itself, is not some sort of colonial anachronism – the need for it is greater than ever,T Sambrook claims.
It is a view supported by Horrocks, who will take over as Vice-Chancellor of the Open University in the spring. SIn a world where information is being sensationalised and polarised, the case for a World Service that helps understanding and mutual tolerance in the world is unanswerable,T he says.
When he was in charge of the World Service, he axed more than 400 jobs and a number of language services to deliver savings of 16% between 2011 and 2014.
While few people seem to doubt that the World Service has an important role to play, questions about how it should be achieved remain unanswered – above all, how it should be funded.
Unsworth is confident that she will not lose out to domestic BBC services in the competition for resources, because she sees Sa real commitmentT at the highest levels of the BBC. A well-resourced, solid, impartial service, where the world can talk to itself, is not some sort of colonial anachronism – the need for it is greater than ever
At the same time, though, she concedes that her service will not receive any special protection. So, could licence-fee funds be supplemented by some financial support from government – in particular, the Department for International Development?
Unsworth believes that the World Service’s ability to demonstrate its independence from Whitehall would be jeopardised by accepting general funds from government.
SI think there are always ways in which one might tap into other areas for additional funds for special projects,T says the World Service Group Director, who also recognises the need to find some commercial funding.
Her immediate predecessor, Horrocks, argues, however, that Sclever, joined-up thinkingT between the BBC and various government departments could construct an investment package for the World Service Sto meet the needs of a fragmented information environment that includes poisonous information on the internetT.
Irrespective of precisely how the overall financing package is constructed, Unsworth believes the World Service can help itself by taking advantage of all the news expertise under one roof in New Broadcasting House.
The World Service and the News Channel, for instance, could share more content streams. Likewise, national radio and World Service English radio could have jointly written bulletins.
In most of the BBC’s overseas markets, the audience expects an international agenda. That could be provided by presenting a core of international news in relevant packages within the various language services.
Unsworth strongly believes that BBC News will itself have to expand internationally, if it is going to be credible in future.
SI do not think you can be taken seriously as a news organisation without the international footprint,T she argues. SNational barriers are massively coming down and we can’t retreat into just being a domestic news provider. I don’t think that would serve Britain at all well.T
The future of the World Service will increasingly be digital and involve apps. In India, for example, there has been a huge growth in smartphones, and the World Service will have to follow its audiences.
There will also be more emphasis on online reports and re-broadcasting television programmes with the help of partner stations.
Using the latest technology could, indeed, facilitate an expansion of services after the previous retrenchments, despite the continuing downward pressure on finances.
SI think that technology might enable us to launch more language services,T says Unsworth. SI would very much like to look at areas of need around the world and look at where people do not have access to independent, impartial news, and ask what could we do for those areas.T
The areas she has in mind include North Korea and China – and some parts of Europe from which the service has retreated and where there remains a dearth of impartial information.
When she was appointed, Unsworth described it as Sthe proudest day in my professional lifeT.
Months later, she remains Svery optimisticT about her service because she believes that she has a Sbig commitmentT from the BBC and because the BBC retains the support of the British public.