Alban Webb, a research fellow in the faculty of social sciences, was among speakers at a Commonwealth Journalists´ Association on ´BBC World Service: Death by a Thousand Cuts? He reprisesthe key points of his presentation for Platform...
For nearly 80 years the BBC World Service has been broadcasting across the globe, representing Britain, facilitating global conversations, mediating cultures, building bridges and providing lifeline news and information services. Since the Second World War this has been done at the British tax-payers expense through a Parliamentary Grant-in-Aid administered by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The current arrangement, however, is about to change and the decision announced in the government’s Comprehensive Spending Review in October to transfer the cost of overseas broadcasting – currently £272m per annum – to the Licence Fee looks set to redefine its relationship with audiences in the UK and abroad. But has due consideration been given to the implications and consequences of this revolution for broadcaster, government and audiences alike?
The move of the World Service out of its historic and iconic London home at Bush House in 2012 and the anticipation of public service cuts had already led it to the brink of a culture change of major proportions: centralising and sharing resources and expertise between domestic and overseas services across the Corporation. The Spending Review, along with the existing problem of a major pension’s deficit, has magnified the significance and immediacy of this multimedia and multilingual overhaul – more than 23% in savings over current costs are needed in the next four years. But the shift of the financial burden from government to the licence payer has added a new dimension that makes it arguably the most important reorganisation of the World Service since the Second World War. How will the BBC effectively communicate the history and tradition of the World Service to a domestic audience largely ignorant of it, but financially responsible for it? Will it be necessary for World Service editorial assumptions to reflect the interests of its UK funders in order to avoid possible spending cuts in the future? And how will the BBC Trust discharge its role as the guardian of the public interest for a range of services that are designed with a different set of publics in mind? Even before the change in funding regime was announced, reductions in the range and scale of overseas services seemed inevitable. Possible competition with domestic services for funds will only increase these pressures.
The existing relationship between government and World Service has evolved over decades to protect editorial independence while still providing a secure stream of funding. It will now need to be reconsidered from first principles. Does this mean that government is indifferent to the range of international broadcast output the BBC provides? This may be the case in some departments, but one suspects that Foreign Office officials might regret a loss of input into the strategic evolution of overseas broadcasting in light of current efforts being put into developing and enhancing public diplomacy capacities within Whitehall.
Despite being rushed there is some valuable time before these major changes are implemented. Time to fully consider their consequences and to plan for them. Time to educate the licence paying public about the BBC World Service and the extended value they derive from a world-class international broadcaster. Time to work out what, if any, relationship would be constitutionally proper and advantageous between Whitehall and the World Service. And time to establish working practices across the Corporation that reflect the different cultures and aims of domestic and overseas broadcasting while making the savings which will be necessary to secure the future and excellence of both.
Dr Alban Webb, BBC World Service Historian, Research Fellow, CRESC (Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change), Dept. of Sociology, Faculty of Social Sciences