The BBC World Service, long admired throughout the Commonwealth and beyond, is going through drastic changes.
No longer an autonomous republic in the venerated Bush House, it has been absorbed within the domestic BBC, under new management, and is having to compete with all the other radio and television departments for financing.
The move has divided opinion within the Corporation, with some journalists and managers seeing it as an overdue modernisation, bringing the World Service more into the fold and making its expertise more widely available, while others fear its quality will suffer and its special identity and culture will diminish.
CJA-UK brought together all sides in a lively debate in a committee room at the House of Commons. On the panel were James Harding, Director of BBC News and Current Affairs, Peter Horrocks, Director Global News, John Whittingdale MP, chairman of the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, Baron Williams, International Trustee of the BBC and Mary Dejevsky, a columnist on The Independent.
Peter Horrocks said the World Service was in good shape compared to recent years, with its regional reporters and analysts getting the broader exposure they warranted — Nkem Ifejika in Nigeria and the Ukrainian editor, Olexiy Solohubenko, were good current examples. He said the new World Service was doing more than its role of the last 80 years, and was giving depth of understanding to domestic British audiences, which would help safeguard the service.
Mr Horrocks said the World Service now had its biggest-ever audience, and it was free from the old accusation that it was not editorially independent because it was “tainted” by receiving government funding.
James Harding said that the BBC realised that the WS embodied Britain’s values – the belief in free speech, and the value of information in democracy. He said he’d been able to protect WS financing when recent, necessary, cuts were made at the BBC – more than £700 million, including more than £60 in news and current affairs.
Lord Williams recalled that the former United Nations secretary-general, Kofi Annan, had called the WS “Britain’s greatest gift to the world in the twentieth century”. And he said this was confirmed by his own experience, especially in countries suffering intense conflict.
He said that the WS was alive and adapting, as it had to, far quicker than people imagined. It was fortunate that WS content was now so much in the mainstream of the BBC. He was aware of concerns about funding by the licence fee instead of government grant, but was not worried the service would be abandoned.
John Whittingdale said that he had often been critical of the BBC but was an unashamed fan of the WS. It was extraordinary that WS experts were not used more often on domestic outlets, and he hoped the integration process would mean hearing more of them.
He admitted that the change had been part of a government attempt to save money. The WS had been competing indirectly for funding against the health service and other priorities. It was always likely to suffer in austerity periods, and there would be an ongoing risk to the vulnerable WS if it were still to be funded from public purse.
Mary Dejevsky agreed that there were now huge advantages for WS journalists who were able to say that they were working for the independent BBC and that their work was no longer funded directly by government. There was a persistent perception in some countries that the BBC WS was the equivalent of Pravda in Soviet times, but this was now demonstrably untrue.