The chair of the Commonwealth Journalists Association (UK), Rita Payne, organised a highly successful forum on the future of the BBC World Service in a committee room at the House of Commons in London on Monday 29th November.
The chairman was the International Director of the Centre for Freedom of the Media and former BBC correspondent, William Horsley and the Panellists were the Director of BBC Global News and World Service, Peter Horrocks; the chairman of the House of Commons All-Party Culture, Media and Sports Committee, John Whttingdale MP, who arranged the venue for the meeting; Historian of the World Service, Alban Webb and the Director of the Royal Commonwealth Society, Danny Sriskandarajah.
Peter Horrocks was given much to think about and made copious notes about the wide variety of points made, many of them with some passion. It was clear that there was a great deal of concern for the future of World Service radio now that it is to be taken in house by the BBC rather than paid for by Grant in Aid from the Foreign Office. It was widely recognised that given the cuts announced by the government and accepted by the BBC that World Service cannot escape unscathed.
The recent cuts imposed to help pay for the television Persian Service were brought about by block closing of services for Eastern Europe but it was made clear that that kind of approach would not be possible in future. It would be matter of judging the value of individual services based on listenership and cost. Thought would also have to be given to the nature of the listenership. It was pointed out, for instance, that the Burmese pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi had been an avid listener to World Service radio during her long years of house arrest.
Fears were expressed about the willingness of the UK BBC television and radio licence fee payers to fund broadcasts designed for an audience outside Britain. Peter Horrocks spoke of ways in which the domestic audience might gain better access to World Service radio and learn of its value. It was also the view of speakers that when the Foreign Office stops paying for the World Service and it becomes the responsibility of the wider BBC its independence will be better understood. Although paid for by the Foreign Office, which dictates the languages in which it broadcasts, the World Service has always been fully independent editorially.
There was also debate about the changes made necessary by the decline in listening on short wave, especially for broadcasts to Europe, North America and Australasia where more and more listen online or via rebroadcasts on FM. The point was made that shortwave is still much valued in parts of Africa and many other places.
The value of World Service as a trusted source was stressed by many speakers, including one who suggested it was so important that it did “not just belong to Britain” and if the cost cutting became a threat to its future extra funding might be sought from international and other bodies – not a suggestion that had been heard before.