Savage cuts to the BBC World Service make a mockery of Global Britain
Throughout the autumn of 2022 the BBC will be celebrating its 100 year anniversary.
Notwithstanding its consummate handling of the death of Queen Elizabeth II, like many people I wonder about the value of some of the BBC’s domestic programming and despair of its cultural and political bias.
But the one arm of the BBC I have always been willing to defend is the BBC World Service. Through a measure of annual grant-making by government, BBC World Service audiences have reached 364 million people—up 13 million people last year.
So, this week I reacted with consternation that, as the centenary celebrations unfold, the BBC will simultaneously be making grave and deep cuts to its services overseas. Hundreds of key posts are closing.
As the free world retreats from the dissemination of news around the world, dictators and autocrats will be more than willing to fill the void
The numbers are stark: 225 in United Kingdom, 156 in bureaux, 381 total job cuts out of Global Languages, which could amount to a fifth of staff. Although no language services will close, the BBC says some TV and radio programmes will stop. BBC Arabic radio and BBC Persian radio will cease – all aimed at saving £28.5 million. These cuts fall part of savings of £285m a year the BBC says is necessitated by the government freezing the licence fee for two years.
And this isn’t just about the BBC. The government were approached and asked to fill the funding gap. They have never been in any doubt that these cuts would be one of the consequences of the reviews by the government into the BBC’s funding settlement.
The deep cuts to the World Service language services follow separate “savings” from the closure of the domestic BBC News Channel and BBC World News, to be replaced by a single BBC News channel. In London, there will be 70 fewer television journalists following and reporting on news.
This new channel will be aimed at a global audience led by international stories but shown at times in the UK. The BBC claims that to roll out breaking news happening in the UK, a smaller team in the newsroom will be formed to output a separate news path. But this isn’t what insiders tell me is likely.
Like Dr Doolittle’s fictional “pushmi-pullyu”, the joint channel will be a two-headed news beast, neither one thing nor the other. Stories about domestic matters will be continually fighting against a global news agenda and bumping important issues around the world off air.
The Foreign Affairs Select Committee needs to examine these series of cuts to the BBC global news services urgently and there should be statements in both Houses. This, after all, makes a mockery of Global Britain and the reach of UK PLC around the world.
As the free world retreats from the dissemination of news and opinion around the world, dictators and autocrats will be more than willing to oblige by filling the void. Step up Putin’s RT and the CCP’s China media. Trusted sources of news? You must be joking. But it isn’t funny.
Think about Iran – desperate for news that can be believed in the middle of a popular uprising. How can this be the right time to make these sort of cuts?
According to the most recent global audience measurement, Persian radio in Iran has an audience of 1.1m (no change year-on-year); the TV audience is 10.4m (no change); and digital is 10.1m (up 69 per cent). And these figures are probably a huge underestimate. In closing BBC Persian Radio – which is the source of news for BBC Persian TV – it leaves the television channel without any live news programme from midnight to 5pm.
Or take the Arabic Radio, which has over 10m listeners. I have been told about prisoners held in Middle Eastern prisons whose only contact with the outside world is this BBC radio service. But for millions of others, trapped in the “prisons” of autocratic regimes which prohibit impartial local media these services are hugely valued as a rare place to hear the truth rather than unremitting propaganda.
Radio still matters. Anyone following the actions of repressive regimes around the world knows the moment an autocratic leader sniffs trouble or sees civic protests escalate – the first response is to shut down the internet. That means no WhatsApp, no Twitter, no Facebook and no access to online digital sources of news from impartial sources.
And hasn’t anyone noticed that in the face of genocide against Uyghur Muslims, exiled Tibetans, threatened Taiwanese, beleaguered Hong Kongers, and brave dissenting voices throughout China, retaining a strong BBC presence is crucially important? Welcome though resources for a new China unit, with a team in London, will be it should be “as well as” not “instead of.”
I have told the BBC that all of this is madness. They and the government need to get a grip – and Parliament needs to mark the 100 years celebrations to insist that the BBC’s global reach is enhanced and not savagely cut.
Lord Alton, crossbench peer.
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