BBC Defends World Service Cuts at CJA Debate
By Will Henley
The BBC World Service will continue to be “a motivating force” in the world despite budget cuts of close to 25 per cent, hundreds of jobs losses and the cancelling of language services, its director has insisted.
Peter Horrocks, addressing an audience of over a hundred at a CJA-UK gathering in Westminster on 29 November, admitted that the UK government’s Autumn decision to withdraw direct funding and slash the World Service budget sharply over the next three years would have a major impact on programming.
“There are going to be significant reductions in services. There will be hundreds of jobs I’m afraid that will need to go as a result of the funding settlement,” he said.
While refusing to be drawn on which of its 32 language services would be scaled back or cancelled, Horrocks argued that the 78-year-old institution remained committed to providing “trusted, independent” news around the globe.
“Our aim is to provide the most trusted, independent news information in the world with a uniquely global perspective that enables a depth of understanding and promotes tolerance,” the director said.
Chairing the panel debate, William Horsley, International Director of the Centre for Freedom of the Media at the University of Sheffield, asserted that the BBC was a “world leader” in providing international news through a variety of multimedia.
Horsley said: “We tent to forget that it is the best international broadcaster by most measures across television, radio and online. If you look at its competitors – CNN, Al Jazeera – they don’t do it across the piste. The BBC is everywhere.”
But he suggested that the World Service’s continuing success would depend largely on its ability to deliver challenging journalism, independent of any government of other pressures, in an age of shrinking budgets and the demand of consumers everywhere for easily-digested news delivered by the Internet or to people’s mobile phones.
A good many audience members expressed concerns that the BBC’s reputation and scope of news could be undermined by drastic cuts.
Lord Frank Judd expressed the fear that the World Service’s in-depth knowledge of its worldwide target countries and their audiences would be damaged by the drastic budget cuts and the forthcoming integration of staff and programme production merger with the domestic BBC services, leading to some decline in the World Service’s standing.
Two former members of the BBC’s Russian language service claimed that in recent years the output had routinely failed to report adequately the undermining of democracy and the rule of law in Russia, leading to bland programmes, a loss of audiences and a loss of respect for the service within Russia.
A former Pakistani news editor voiced concern that the BBC was “running away” from new challenges, and warned that if it did so, China would fill the vacuum.
Horrocks said he saw benefits of the coaliton government’s decision to cut direct financing from the UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office in a new settlement which sees the service become reliant on license fee funding from the UK public.
“That direct funding by the UK government is something which a number of foreign governments have used to undermine the [BBC's] reputation for impartiality in the past,” the director said. “So I think that is an important principle.”
The director, noting that audience numbers across the World Service today stand at “record levels”, added that he would look at additional forms of financing, including international and commercial sources.
“Clearly when your funding is being cut by approximately 25 per cent you do need to look at other sources of funding… international sources and European and other donors. That is something we will look at more closely.”
Other panellists included Royal Commonwealth Society director Danny Sriskandarajah, historian of the World Service Alban Webb and John Whittingdale MP, chairman of the House of Commons All-Party Culture, Media and Sport Committee.
Click here for an Open University blog about the debate from Alban Webb.
Click here for a letter to The Times on BBC World Service Cuts from William Horsley (subscription).
Click here for a report on the event by Jim Edwards, former World Service editor.