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Author Topic:  BBC World Service - Stephen Glover asks, do we really care?  (Read 2304 times)


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We are all in favour of the BBC World Service but do we really care? I ask because there is little more than a whimper of national protest at the Coalition Government's plans to cut the World Service's budget by 16 per cent as part of its spending review. After a ritual nod of objection, people tend to concern themselves with much bigger cutbacks far closer to home. Just possibly things are changing. Last week, the all-party House of Commons foreign affairs committee said that planned cuts of ?46m to an annual budget of ?253m should be reversed. Richard Ottaway, the Tory MP and committee chairman, quoted the verdict of the former United Nations secretary-general, Kofi Annan, that the World Service was "perhaps Britain's greatest gift to the world". As things stand, this priceless but relatively inexpensive gift is losing five foreign language services, and the World Service's global audience is expected to decline by about 30 million listeners from 180 million.

You may ask: why should the World Service be spared the painful cuts experienced in almost every other area of government? The answer is that it should not be. Or, to be more precise, the cuts of ?46m should be made up by the international aid budget, which is projected to soar by nearly 40 per cent to an amazing ?9.4bn in 2015. A minute sliver of the aid budget, so small that it would hardly be noticed, could preserve the BBC World Service as it is. I can barely think of a more valuable form of aid. It informs and enlightens millions of people who are kept in the dark by their governments. Throughout the Middle East, and in many parts of Africa, it is listened to by those who are being lied to and even persecuted. The World Service, shorn as it is of any taint of propaganda on behalf of our Government, is also the best advertisement there could be for British truth-telling and fair play.

Even the most passionate advocate of international aid could hardly deny that some of it is wasted, either through inefficiency or corruption. Huge sums also go to countries that arguably do not need them. Britain contributes ?90m a year though the European Union to Turkey, a middle-income country, and nearly ?300m a year to India, which has a substantial space programme and a defence budget not much smaller than ours.

All I propose is that a minuscule fraction of the hugely expanding aid budget should be diverted to save the World Service. In a grown-up, joined-up government there would be no argument. Ministers would cuff themselves, and say "silly us". If you asked a thousand people, 999 of them would probably want the international aid budget to be used to safeguard this precious asset. Are ministers simply ignorant of its beneficial effects? Or is the government machine too rigid and hidebound for anyone to admit that a silly decision was quickly and thoughtlessly made during last autumn's spending review?

Putting the World Service budget in the hands of the BBC (until now it has been funded by the Foreign Office) is also a bad mistake. Whatever its director-general, Mark Thompson, may say, the BBC cannot be relied on to fund it generously in the future. The corporation is answerable to the licence-payer, and the licence-payer may justifiably have little or no interest in a service he or she seldom hears.

Thank God the foreign affairs committee is standing up for the World Service. But governments are pig-headedly stubborn. They don't like admitting they have got things wrong. It will need the muscle of powerful newspapers, as well as the constant attention of concerned MPs, if there is to be any chance of putting this right. Those who care about Britain's influence in the world, and want this country to be a force for good, must join the campaign.

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