‘Auntie Mabel doesn’t give a toss about Serbia’

Jo Glanville on the future of the World Service

In October last year, after discussions that took place over just nine days, the BBC agreed to take the funding of the World Service off the hands of the government from 2014. At the same time, as part of the Comprehensive Spending Review, the Foreign Office announced a 16 per cent cut – £46 million – in the World Service budget. By the time it leaves its imperious headquarters at Bush House on Aldwych next year and moves into the renovated Broadcasting House on Portland Place, the World Service will have shrunk significantly, shedding language services, listeners, programmes, staff and frequencies. It lost ten of its language services in 2005 in order to fund the launch of Arabic and Persian television channels, and five more this year; in addition, seven services have stopped broadcasting on radio, surviving as internet-only operations. Although the foreign affairs select committee, which has emerged as the World Service’s greatest champion, helped to secure a concession of £2.2 million a year, it has failed to convince the government that the cuts should be reversed completely.

The World Service, originally the Empire Service when it was founded in 1932, is today one of the last remaining traces of imperial reach. It is the largest international public service broadcaster: over the past ten years, its audience has reached 184 million. The Foreign Office’s readiness to take money away from the World Service and then shrug off financial responsibility for it appears short-sighted, especially at a time when international broadcasting is entering a new period of expansion: the Chinese are investing £2 billion a year in overseas broadcasting, eight times as much as the World Service, while the US spends twice as much. But it should be borne in mind that the Foreign Office is itself embattled. Hated by the Treasury and caricatured in Whitehall as a home for cocktail-drinking loafers, it was sidelined under Labour and received a significant blow in 2007, when the Treasury abolished the overseas price mechanism, which had protected overseas spending against currency fluctuation. In a bid to rebuild its status under a new government and a strong foreign secretary, the Foreign Office has shown little compunction in slashing the World Service and the British Council (a 25 per cent cut), while giving itself a comparatively light trim at 6 per cent. As part of the deal with the BBC, the Foreign Office will continue to have a say in setting the priorities, objectives and targets for the World Service even after it comes under the licence fee in 2014, and the BBC will need the foreign secretary’s consent to open and close language services. These conditions were, a senior insider tells me, a potential deal breaker in the negotiations in which the BBC secured the licence fee – frozen at the current level – for the next six years.

Mark Thompson, the BBC’s director general, told me in June that the Foreign Office’s continuing control is ‘a fine constitutional point’ which can be addressed in the next charter renewal – no more threatening, he believes, than the potential the government already has under the terms of the charter for interfering in the business of the BBC. But the Foreign Office veto has in fact been a headache for the World Service, most recently stopping its director, Peter Horrocks, from closing as many language services as he originally proposed as a way of managing the cuts.

Such tensions are not new. ‘We would have extended our broadcasts in a number of ways to different languages,’ recalls John Tusa, who ran the World Service from 1986 to 1992, ‘but because the FCO had this ludicrous power of prescription they’d say no. And we’d say there’s an audience there, there’s a need there. And then sometimes when a crisis developed they’d say: “Oh, would you start broadcasting to such and such a country.” And I found it very unsatisfactory because it seemed to determine that who we broadcast to was determined not so much by whether there was an audience there but by FCO policy priorities and that in itself damages the independence and the perceived independence of the World Service.’ For Tusa, this was an argument for bringing the World Service deeper inside the BBC fold, though he would have liked it to keep its own pot of government money. The fact that the BBC was prepared to accept the continuing veto in last year’s negotiations shows how important it was to push the deal through. The six-year licence fee deal was a coup, protecting the BBC, for the moment, from cuts and further skirmishes with the government.

In the months leading up to the spending review, there had been some talk about bringing the World Service under the licence fee, but it hadn’t been any more than a proposal for the future. When the government made its approach to the BBC in the last weeks of the review, it began by requesting that the BBC pay for the licence fees of the over-75s, at a cost of at least £600 million. Neither Thompson nor the BBC Trust was prepared to agree to this. There were discussions among the trustees as to whether the BBC could refuse to take over any government spending at all; fears, too, that if a deal were rejected altogether, the BBC would be hit hard when it came to the next round of licence fee negotiations.

Thompson has been robust in his defence of the eventual decision. ‘I feel very strongly that when we went into final talks with the government, the BBC could have walked away at that point, and nothing would have happened,’ he told me. ‘We recommended to the Trust to accept the licence fee settlement because we thought it was better than not accepting it. The BBC was being offered a settlement that was comparable to what was being offered to the British Museum, the National Theatre and the National Gallery. By waiting a year or 18 months would you get a better deal? That’s the practical question to ask and our judgment was no.’ The BBC also took on responsibility for the Welsh language channel S4/C and for BBC Monitoring as part of the deal and is now planning cuts of its own – its new financial responsibilities, along with the freeze in the licence fee, mean that it will need to find savings of 20 per cent of its budget.

This was an unprecedented way of doing business: the future of one of the country’s greatest institutions decided in a matter of days, without public consultation and with its new mechanisms of governance left undecided. Sources close to Lord Patten, who was appointed chair of the BBC Trust earlier this year, told me that he took a dim view of the fact that Thompson was allowed to lead the negotiations, and witnesses to the deal are said to have been alarmed by the horsetrading involved.

For those at Bush House, there is a positive aspect to the changes. It has always been difficult for World Service journalists to explain to people overseas that although they’re funded by the government they have editorial independence. Broadcasters don’t like to think of themselves as an arm of soft power (although as long as the foreign secretary keeps his veto, that’s unlikely to change). But there is concern among staff that by the time the World Service moves to Broadcasting House, it will have shrunk to such a degree that its ability to influence the BBC’s international news agenda will be diminished. Helen Boaden, director of BBC news, has recently been put in charge of all news operations, including those of the World Service, and has a seat on the BBC’s executive board, its highest level of management. The foreign affairs select committee recommended that Horrocks also have a place on the board, but the proposal has been ignored.

Thompson and Patten have both made it clear that they care about the World Service; the BBC has already given £20 million towards restructuring costs, and the Trust is recruiting a trustee for international broadcasting (there has been no one with that brief since the Board of Governors was disbanded in 2007, with the Trust taking its place). However, the World Service’s budget will not be ring-fenced once it comes under the licence fee, so there is no guarantee that it won’t be raided to feed domestic services. How will the World Service, which aims to broadcast high-quality news and features to a global audience, hold its own in the face of the BBC’s fight for domestic ratings? It has already ceased to be the truly global service it once was: in its heyday there were 45 language services; now there are 27, including English. The case remains to be made to licence fee payers why they should be funding programmes in foreign languages that they cannot hear. One remedy might be to improve online access to language service broadcasts, but by taking over the funding of the World Service the BBC has potentially opened up a new line of attack on the licence fee.

The decisions made last October can be seen as completing changes begun by John Birt in 1996 when he was director general. Birt integrated World Service newsgathering and English language programmes into domestic news, and there were plans to take the foreign language services under the BBC umbrella as well. There was an outcry at Birt’s plans, which were seen as an unacceptable attack on the autonomy of the World Service. The change in the public mood since then is striking. Today, it is hard to find anyone who thinks last year’s far more significant decision is a challenge to the World Service’s independence. Horrocks grew testy when I raised the issue: ‘Independence from what, and for what, is what I would ask. Being able to rely on one of the strongest newsgathering organisations in the world, which is what BBC news has become since those Birt reforms, has been a huge benefit to the World Service in English and in languages. So I don’t think anyone currently would go back to that argument and say if the World Service had its own separate newsgathering operation around the world it would be in a better position. And we’re not independent from the BBC, we are part of the BBC.’

Even before the spending review cuts, Horrocks had set about dissolving the divisions within the World Service between online, TV and radio production, making Craig Oliver, a television high-flyer, head of the English World Service and Liliane Landor controller of languages across all platforms, and reducing management staff by 25 per cent. To the relief of many, Oliver was poached by No. 10 to replace Andy Coulson as Cameron’s head of communications, but before he left the World Service one of his less popular moves was to kill The Interview, a radio programme that I produced for a short time. One of the programme’s great coups was an interview that Kofi Annan gave to Owen Bennett-Jones in 2004 in which Annan said that the invasion of Iraq was illegal. The Interview has now been replaced by the BBC World television programme Hard Talk, in a version for radio. The decision appeared symptomatic of a lack of understanding, at the top of the World Service, of the distinctiveness of radio.

The audience for the World Service’s English language programmes has grown by 10 per cent this year, to more than 43 million listeners a week worldwide. This increase took place despite substantial and largely unreported budget cuts to the English service, and the loss of its medium-wave audience in the UK and Europe (the signal was quietly switched off earlier this year). Yet although radio is still by far the World Service’s most popular platform, with 88 per cent of its audience, the spin is to promote its growth on television and online and to emphasise the decline in its traditional shortwave audience.

Horrocks evidently sees a breakdown of the old distinctions between the World Service and BBC international news, now that the age of broadcasting (or publishing) solely for a national audience, within national boundaries, is over. ‘The world that we’re in is an integrated one, it’s an online world,’ he said. ‘It’s a world where things are permeable and it’s not the same as when shortwave was the sole means of delivery to our audiences. The World Service wasn’t generally heard in the UK – it was two separate worlds. It’s all one thing now. It’s journalism that’s needed in the UK and around the world.’

Shortwave transmission of English and language service programmes, which provides for 43 per cent of the World Service’s listeners, is being dramatically reduced because of the cuts. There were loud protests when the World Service announced earlier this year that it was dropping Hindi shortwave; in the event some, but not all, the broadcasts were retained. Even though the Hindi audience had dropped significantly over the past four years, it remained large – 11 million in 2010 – and the latest figures, which include listeners in Jammu and Kashmir for the first time, show an increase of half a million before the service’s hours were reduced. There is some concern among staff about the way this year’s audience figures have been presented. Although the World Service’s total audience grew by four million in 2010-11 to 184 million, language services that have closed or are due to close since the audience figures were completed have been removed from the total, resulting in a figure of 166 million. The increase of half a million in the Hindi audience therefore appears as a drop of 60 per cent. Some have speculated that this is a political move designed to emphasise the damage inflicted by the Foreign Office cuts, while also undermining radio’s continuing success.

By running down shortwave at the same time as he talks up the multimedia future, it could be argued that Horrocks is fulfilling his own prophecy. There is a risk that the loss of the shortwave audience share threatens the World Service altogether. The internet and mobile phones might be the future – at present they account for a relatively small part of the audience – but in the short term there is likely to be a precipitous drop in audience figures, and there is no guarantee that listeners will migrate to the web. Thompson and Horrocks admit that the cuts are forcing the World Service to pull out of shortwave earlier than they would have liked, but they both believe that it is in rapid decline anyway.

Shortwave is considered a poor-quality signal, and old-fashioned: John Tusa calls it the ‘historic workhorse’ of international broadcasting. It is expensive to maintain: its infrastructure is the World Service’s second biggest cost after staff. The plan is to keep it principally for ‘lifeline countries’ – such as Burma, where there are limited independent sources of news – and to retain only a minimal service to English audiences. Yet the worry persists that there is insufficient evidence to support the claim of a global dip. The World Service’s Hausa language service, broadcast to northern Nigeria and other countries in West Africa, has grown by 16 per cent in the last year to an audience of more than 23 million, most of whom listen on shortwave. Some of the World Service’s audience – in Libya and Somalia, for example – is extremely difficult to measure, so it’s possible that there may be a bigger shortwave audience out there than we know.

Where audiences can listen to the World Service on the better quality FM, they do so. But FM transmitters have limited reach beyond urban areas, and in many parts of the world they are prohibitively expensive. In some countries, the BBC is dependent on regulators for licences – in Nigeria the BBC isn’t allowed to broadcast any form of news on FM – or is subject to arbitrary government control, as illustrated recently when it was taken off air in Sri Lanka and Ivory Coast. In Rwanda in 2009, the World Service was accused of genocide denial and banned from FM when the government took exception to a broadcast.

If it is considered an important part of the World Service’s mission to impart information to audiences in countries where the media are restricted, then shortwave surely wins out as the more reliable means of communication. It can be jammed, but it cannot be wholly disabled – as the internet and mobile phone networks were in Egypt earlier this year. Shortwave’s adherents are concerned that the World Service is turning away from the people who need it in favour of an audience of ‘opinion-formers’. Its managers claim the contrary, pointing to the maintenance of shortwave in Burma as an example, but a poorer, rural audience is being left behind, and when a country’s dictator takes control of radio broadcasts, the World Service will no longer be available there in any form.

If the BBC decides that it can no longer afford to maintain the infrastructure for shortwave, and begins to close down its transmitter sites around the world as other international broadcasters have done, there will be consequences for its participation in a new form of digital radio called Digital Radio Mondiale (DRM). It is the digital version of shortwave and medium wave, providing high-quality radio with the advantage that it can be transmitted, free from political interference, over great distances. DRM is still in its early stages and receivers are not yet widely available, but India and Russia have both committed to it, and Brazil is thinking about it. The World Service is involved – one of its executives chairs the DRM consortium – but its role might be jeopardised if it pulls out of shortwave since DRM uses the same facilities and frequencies.

The World Service has been able to call on extraordinary resources, sometimes obscure even to the people who work there. I remember once, when based in Bush House, calling various think-tanks and universities in search of an expert on Bosnia, only to be told that the biggest expert in the UK was sitting in an office just a few corridors from mine. It’s possible that these writers, intellectuals and journalists will thrive in Portland Place, but the loss of that small version of the United Nations, in its preposterously grand location, with its polyglot canteen and club, means the end of an institution. Peter Horrocks looks forward to the positive impact the arrival of the international World Service will have on the domestic BBC – and he may be right. But the BBC can be a divided and unfriendly place: often people will share an office but never speak to one another if they’re working on different programmes. BBC domestic staff and World Service staff have long regarded each other with mutual snobbery. The World Service is sneered at for its pedantry and high-minded interest in international affairs (‘Auntie Mabel doesn’t give a toss about Serbia’ is the sort of remark you could hear at some BBC news meetings), and World Service staff can be sniffy about the domestic BBC’s populism. They also worry that their approach to international affairs will not be appreciated in the wider BBC. ‘I suspect that the majority of people in the domestic BBC think that broadcasting internationally is just putting in a bit more foreign coverage,’ Tusa said. ‘The fact is that you have to think yourself into the frame of mind and approach of an international listener. It’s not a matter of distorting what the news is: you have to make the effort to ask what does the world look like from there? How do we broadcast independently without bias and keep an understanding of what the international listener needs?’

Morale at the BBC is low at present. Union members have been striking at the prospect of compulsory redundancies in the World Service and BBC Monitoring, and there has been unhappiness at changes to employees’ pension entitlements in the face of a sizeable deficit for which staff believe management is partly to blame. As the licence fee will soon have to absorb the World Service, S4/C and BBC Monitoring, cuts are currently being discussed in a consultation exercise called Delivering Quality First (staff call it ‘delivering quality furniture’, since so much time is spent debating desk measurements). Foreign news staff are particularly concerned about the number of correspondents who may lose their jobs and bureaus that may close, and have doubts about the viability of plans to use World Service correspondents for whom English may not be a first language on domestic BBC news. These plans have already been piloted by Horrocks and Landor, and if implemented fully would amount to a remarkable shift in the tone of BBC news and the long tradition of the white male foreign correspondent: as things stand, one of the World Service’s most brilliant reporters, Lyse Doucet, appears on flagship domestic BBC1 news programmes infrequently, I’m told, because her Canadian accent isn’t popular with executives.

Horrocks is committed to the possibility of a less Anglocentric kind of international news on the BBC. ‘The UK audience,’ he said, ‘needs a stronger international perspective seen from a genuinely international vantage point rather than from a little-Englander perspective.’ His boss, Helen Boaden, is said to have less faith that the domestic audience shares the same passion for foreign news, let alone news from a non-British perspective. But the most urgent question remains: if it is true that Auntie Mabel doesn’t give a toss about Serbia, what is she likely to think about paying for Abu Khaled to listen to the BBC in Cairo? Mark Thompson and the BBC Trust, in taking the cost of the World Service off the government’s hands, showed themselves confident that licence fee payers will be persuaded. Others might think it a great, and possibly reckless, gamble with the future of what has been called Britain’s greatest gift to the world in the 20th century.