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The BBC World Service is vital in an increasingly dangerous world

4 min read

Elections are rarely fought on foreign policy; if they are, it is usually a sign of crisis.

Yet as the war in Ukraine has reminded us, foreign policy creates a climate in which domestic goals either become achievable or remain out of reach. 

Whoever forms the next government will need to try to influence the direction of world events. If my party – or Labour – are serious about strengthening Britain’s place in the world, they should commit to funding our global voice: the BBC World Service.
The international backdrop is challenging: war in Europe, strained relations with China, more displaced people around the world than ever before. We will need to continue to strengthen our defence and diplomacy to adjust for a more dangerous world and to promote global solutions, underpinned by international law and respect for human rights. We cannot rely on anyone else to champion democratic values, and we have to share the responsibility with our allies. 

The government should commit to restoring regular, long-term and significant direct funding for the BBC World Service – allowing it to maintain and strengthen its position as the leading global provider of impartial, independent and accurate news. The World Service brand still enjoys high levels of trust around the world. At its best, its reporting exposes the lies and corruption of authoritarians. It has uncovered atrocities, and dissected disinformation. In its absence, voices which encourage division or which bolster hostile interests are able to flourish.

Countries like Russia, China and Iran invest heavily in news and media services to spread their versions of events – while also trying to shut down independent reporting by the BBC World Service and others. Russia has actively used disinformation to create pretexts for its invasion of Ukraine. Its state-owned news outlet Sputnik is hugely influential in key regions – not just Russia. China is thought to spend hundreds of millions – perhaps billions – of pounds on external media every year. The official news agency, Xinhua, has 37 bureaus in Africa, more than any other media agency. Our adversaries’ propaganda seeks to turn readers and listeners against the open international order and the principles of freedom and international law. They paint the West as weak and failing on the one hand, and oppressive and manipulative on the other. 

The BBC World Service is a key tool in countering this disinformation. But it faces severe pressure. The decision under David Cameron’s government – which, as an adviser to the then-foreign secretary, I have to share in responsibility for – to make the BBC and the licence fee primarily responsible for funding the World Service has put it into competition with domestic programming. BBC bosses, accountable to audiences in the United Kingdom, have little incentive to protect the World Service. It lives hand-to-mouth, reliant on shrinking BBC funds and occasional, uncertain top-up funding from the government. Last year’s budget cuts forced it to close long-running and respected Arabic and Persian radio services – even as the war in Ukraine and conflict in Sudan have required new radio offerings, proof of the importance of maintaining these capabilities. It’s time to reverse that decision, and restore the direct grant to the World Service on a long-term basis, with a multi-year funding settlement.

#If we want to influence world events – the currents which shape our future for better or worse – then we have to be engaged, with friends and foe alike, and we have to work to build and retain legitimacy. 

More than at any point since the cold war, we are in a battle of ideas, with competing narratives and visions of the future. If the government wants to win that battle, we need to be sure that accurate and impartial information is freely available. The World Service is the best way of doing that. We should make sure it has the funding – and independence – it needs to flourish.

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