I am glad I am not Mark Thompson, Director General of the BBC. He has had to take on funding of the BBC World Service from HM Government at the same time as having to slash the BBC’s expenditure. This makes the BBC-knockers happy, but there is another side to it (apart from the ‘little englander’ let’s cut the BBC down to size despite its global importance and reach).
There is a certain irony in the fact that just as popular revolutions are challenging autocracies across the Middle East (and, consequently, more widely?), a prime organ for consistent, informed and intelligent reporting and analysis is switching off its microphones and vacating the space to other voices.
The proposed cuts to the World Service involve losing a quarter of all staff, a 16 per cent reduction in the government grant over the next five years, and the closure of five foreign language services:
- · Five language services totally closed (Albanian, Macedonian, Serbian, English for Caribbean, Portuguese for Africa)
- · Radio programming ending in seven languages: (Azeri, Mandarin for China, Russian, Spanish for Cuba, Turkish, Vietnamese and Ukrainian)
- · Immediate end of short wave radio (March 2011) in Hindi, Indonesian, Kyrgyz, Nepali, Swahili and the Great Lakes Service for Rwanda and Burundi.
- · Immediate end to short and medium wave in English (March 2011) to Russia and former FSU
In a harsh world of financial stringency one or two of these make some sense – the last one, for example. But, just when Russia is kicking off again, Indonesia is suspect and central Africa faces ‘challenges’, aren’t these precisely the places we should be engaging with? Look at just a few of the figures:
- The average age of a World Service audience member is 29 years old.
- It is estimated that as a result there will be a 30 million drop in the World Service’s weekly audience from 180 million people to 150 million people worldwide.
Surely this is a time for investing in this sort of communication, not cutting it?
Even the Archbishop of York has pitched in. According to a press notice today, he said:
The BBC World Service output is much loved and respected across the globe. Not only is it the gold standard for international affairs coverage, it has a unique ability to reach into a variety of situations overseas – often where democratic values and basic human rights are not being upheld.
Just look at the way the World Service has been covering the protests in Egypt, or the way it reports natural disasters or war. There is no-one else providing the same level of insight for a global audience.
We should not underestimate the role that the World Service plays for those living overseas.
My concern is that these cuts will not only mean redundancies for those living at home, but a significant reduction in service for those living overseas. We have a responsibility to reach out to others and ensure that the message of hope the BBC World Service can bring rings out as widely as possible.
In my opinion, the Government is doing good work in relation to prioritising International Aid to countries that need it, but I would like to see this coupled with getting a message of hope, fairness, democracy and justice out to these same areas.
The problem is that you can’t measure the real value of the World Service’s impact on shaping the world views of people who might otherwise be shaped by other (less ‘helpful’?) perspectives. You certainly can’t measure this impact on some spreadsheet in an office in London.
But, perhaps that is why it is so important not to diminish it in the short-term when the longer-term cost to the global village might be to leave all the space for the village idiots to spread their own darkness.
I realise that this could be read as paternalistic superiority. I don’t think that should stop us from thinking about the communication of values we still think are worth hanging on to or commending to others. Or do we let the prevalent cynicism of our own culture keep us quiet?