The Sunday Times

January 30th, 2011

To save the World Service, first we need dynamite

Like the Irishman in the joke who was asked for directions, I feel more and more often like replying that I wouldn’t start from here. I certainly felt like that about the cuts to the BBC’s World Service that were announced last week.

In a rather sensational news release on Wednesday, the corporation revealed that it was to sack about 650 journalists — a quarter of the World Service’s staff — and would close five foreign-language services altogether: the Albanian, Macedonian, Portuguese for Africa, Caribbean English and Serbian services.

It will also shortly end shortwave and medium-wave radio programmes in seven languages, including Mandarin Chinese and Russian, focusing instead on online and mobile telephone users.

The service plans then to phase out its remaining foreign-language broadcasts in shortwave and medium wave. After March 2014 there will be no World Service shortwave broadcasts in foreign languages at all, apart from what the BBC describes as a small number of “lifeline” services, such as those in Burmese and Somali.

These announcements were met with cries of outrage, as one would expect. Trade unionists, politicians on both left and right and almost all the press were united in protest. This particular arm of the BBC is the most priceless jewel in our battered crown, they said. It is the voice of democracy, a forum of reason and justice. It brings information to those who need it and to those who are denied it, and, if not quite a light unto the nations, it is at least, as the BBC’s motto claims, a way for nation to speak peace unto nation.

In particular it’s a way for our nation to speak English to other nations, promoting our extreme good luck in having an international language that most people want to speak. Britain may have lost an empire but it has gained a lingua franca, and it is certainly one of the many functions of the World Service to reinforce the economic and political power of global English.

No doubt some of all that is true, though most of us have little idea, probably, of what the BBC World Service actually does. But in these harsh times everyone in public life is trying to pass costs on to someone else, and last year the government decided that the Foreign Office should no longer pay for it. From 2014 the BBC will have to fund it out of its licence fee money.

This is particularly annoying for the BBC, because on the same day last year the government imposed a licence fee freeze for six years.

So the BBC’s announcement last week of its harsh cuts to the service might, on the face of it, seem to be a rude gesture to the government in retribution: see what you and your cuts have done to our national treasure. After all, the BBC could perfectly well afford to pay for it without even noticing from its vast, if frozen, wealth. At present, its total annual income is £3.45 billion, while the World Service costs only £272m a year.

But the same could be said of the Department for International Development (DfID), which really ought to pay for the service. Its annual budget is £7.8 billion and will rapidly rise to £11.3 billion in 2013. So a little handout for the jewel in our crown would hardly be noticed in the vast numbers of the department’s expensive enterprises and questionable schemes. One might say there is something of a punitive gesture in the government’s determination to make the bloated BBC cough up for it.

Whatever the truth of all that, it is surely clear that, in looking for cuts, both the BBC and the government are starting from the wrong place. The World Service does not need to be cut. It needs to be expanded. If cuts are needed — and they are — the BBC should be reducing other costs.

The corporation produces all kinds of unnecessary popular programming, which it ought to leave to the commercial sector. It could and should cut itself to the bone and save squillions, to spend on better things or to return to the licence fee payers.

Equally, the DfID should ask itself why, for example, it gives most of its foreign aid to India — a rapidly growing country full of exceptionally wealthy people, who ought to do more of their own charitable aid and development. By contrast there is almost no limit to the good the World Service could do, both to this country and to those who use it.

It should do much more of what we all imagine it does already — offer news, knowledge, a global forum and even a kind of liberation from ignorance and tyranny — in many different languages and in English, carefully targeted at those who need it, in media they can afford and can get.

No doubt there is a little fat in the service ripe for liposuction. And no doubt there are economies of scale in merging it, in effect, with the rest of the BBC and using the same reporters for all services — which already happens to some extent. Otherwise, surely more would be better.

However, I’m not sure I would start from where the service is today. I was astonished to discover that, of the 2,270 hours a week of English-language programmes it currently produces, only 80 are regional programming, aimed at specific audiences in Africa, the Caribbean, south Asia and America. How can this target more than a handful of the dispossessed or the oppressed? The rest is all general stuff, good perhaps, but how is it different from what the main BBC — the mothership — produces? I was also stunned to learn that the World Service broadcasts only around 720 hours a week of non-English-language programmes. Given that there are about 5,000 living languages in the world — India alone has several hundred, of which 22 are recognised by the government as official — that doesn’t seem very much for a world service.

Nor would I start from an emphasis on broadband, mobile-phone and digital-radio access to the service, which is the BBC’s policy in abandoning shortwave and medium-wave broadcasts. It’s true that information technology moves very fast, and more and more people are getting hold of it.

But vast swathes of the world — those who arguably most need the World Service — cannot hope to get broadband or mobile phones. Internet access in Saudi Arabia is 17.7 %, for example, in Indonesia 12.3%, in Laos 7.5%, in Sri Lanka 8.3% and across the whole of Africa, on average, only 10.9%.

To get a World Service of the kind we all imagine, the BBC should not be starting from here. Perhaps it should start all over again, from a new beginning.