What is the future of the BBC World Service?

When the announcement came in 2010 that the funding for the BBC World Service would cease from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and transfer over to the licence fee, there were some concerns rai

When the announcement came in 2010 that the funding for the BBC World Service would cease from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and transfer over to the licence fee, there were some concerns raised about the viability of the World Service and its abilities to meet its journalistic goals in the long term. Cutbacks began with the closure of several language services and job losses. The most recent budget news came in October, when the World Service announced, according to a report from the BBC, in order to save £42 million, that 73 more jobs would be eliminated, 25 of those in the English language service.

A year before the funding switch, the Parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee has raised some concerns on the future, saying the uncertainty towards the viability of the station is unacceptable, in a report issued April 18. The report from the committee, the BBC report notes, says it is unclear if the World Service could have time to properly plan its future, because an operating licence had not been properly drawn up. “We do not see how the BBC World Service can plan properly how to reflect its new priorities, pursue its new objectives or shape its output, given the short lead-in time,” read the report.

Additionally, the committee has called for representation on the BBC’s executive board of the World Service, instead of being represented by the director of BBC News, and also called for a consideration of services, especially shortwave radio, where some areas still needed it. “The World Service must continue to take into account significant audiences in certain parts of the world, such as rural India and Africa, who currently rely on shortwave radio,” the report added.

A spokesperson for the Foreign Affairs Committee did not respond to telephone or e-mail requests by Kettle for an interview of a committee member. A spokesperson for the Foreign Office said it was pleased the Committee recognised the role the World Service had. “The FCO is working closely with the BBC World Service and the BBC Trust on arrangements, including on the draft Operation Licence and wider public consultation exercise, as well as on the objectives, targets and priorities which will apply on transfer to Licence Fee funding in April 2014,” the spokesperson said. “After that date the Foreign Secretary will continue to support the BBC World Service in formal engagement with the BBC Trust on matters of governance.”

A spokesperson for the BBC Trust said discussions on the licence were taking place. “We are in regular, on-going discussions with the World Service about the transition to licence fee funding from 2014 to ensure that this transition is as smooth as possible, and we are already delivering on a number of the Committee’s recommendations,” the spokesperson said. “It has been our intention for some time to publish a draft Operating Licence for consultation this summer.”

The spokesperson added regarding the budget for the World Service that funding information would be released as soon as the Trust was able to do so, and indicated that it would be done at the earliest opportunity.

The question at the end of the day is whether or not the World Service, known around the world for being some of the best journalism available (or in some cases the only journalism available), can be viable.

William Hewstone, the political director of the publication The Student Journals and a contributor to Kettle, said the decision by the government was more about the prestige of the BBC rather than any economic argument, as no major harm would be done to remove funding from the Foreign Office. “The government has to cut so much from some departments, this reshuffle (and reduction in funding) is relatively small anyway,” Hewstone said. “This is more about the prestige of the BBC, alleged governmental incompetence, and of course international aid; something Brits are notoriously sceptical about.”

Hewstone added that the tradition of the BBC’s overseas broadcasting would continue. But in the UK, Hewstone notes, not all Britons know the World Service or its purpose, and those that do will call for it to remain. “This is partly because of the crucial impartiality, but also that we all like the idea of that stiff-upper lipped Radio presenter saying ‘This is the BBC Empire Service’ at the beginning of each broadcast and ending the day with the national anthem – something Radio 4 still does,” Hewstone said. “I think this is of a legacy of that era for some people.”

At the end of the day, Hewstone says, it will be not about the political direction, but direction of newspaper commentaries. “If they say it is a multiculturalist government that hates British tradition and the international imperial legacy then that is what some in the public will think, and this will backfire,” Hewstone said. “Then again there is a significant demographic, of both conservatives and leftists, who think the BBC is biased, and trust in it halved between 2003 and 2012, 88-41%, so presumably they will hate it no matter what the government does.”

Ahead of the switch to the licence fee next April, the speculation still remains on whether the World Service can still be the best and the voice for the world, as it goes into funding for domestic programmes. At the end of the day, the question will be the value of the World Service inside the BBC and recognition in its future budget.

What do you think? Can the BBC World Service survive? As a licence fee payer, do you value the World Service? Have your say in the comments section below, on Facebook or on Twitter.