COMMONS

MPs publish report on cuts to the BBC World Service

13 April 2011

The BBC World Service is of such value to the nation that its income should be ring-fenced against spending cuts, says the Foreign Affairs Committee in its report into the future of the BBC World Service. The report says that the decision to transfer funding responsibility for the BBC World Service from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) to the BBC will have major long-term ramifications for the future of the World Service.

The World Service promotes British values across the globe and has a reputation exceeded by none. Despite this, the Service has suffered a disproportionate reduction in its future Grant-in-Aid under the spending review settlement, by comparison with that of the 'core FCO': allowing for inflation, 16% as against 10% across the four years 2010–11 to 2014–15.

Discussions

High-level discussions between the Government and the BBC about a transfer took place for the first time only nine days before the formal announcement of the change, and the approval of the Foreign Secretary was secured only 48 hours before. The decision was essentially financial, taken at very short notice, albeit with the full agreement of BBC top management.

Value of World Service

Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Richard Ottaway MP, said:

"The BBC World Service has been described by Kofi Annan as "perhaps Britain’s greatest gift to the world". The value of the World Service in promoting the UK across the globe, by providing a widely respected and trusted news service, far outweighs its relatively small cost. The recent dramatic events in North Africa and the Middle East have shown that the "soft power" wielded through the World Service could bring even more benefits to the UK in the future than it has in the past, and that to proceed with the planned cuts to the World Service would be a false economy".

The report says that the decision to reduce World Service spending by 16% during the 2010 spending review period should be reversed, and resources made available for it to continue its operations at roughly the 2010–11 level of staffing and output.

Funding

If the Service's funding is reduced in spite of this recommendation, the committee urges for damage limitation. In particular, the report calls for the World Service to commit itself to longer-term support for an unreduced BBC Hindi and BBC China Mandarin shortwave service, and to providing enhanced resources to BBC Arabic as required by the recent and continuing political developments in the region.

There is a discrepancy between the relatively small amounts of money needed to avoid the most damaging cuts to the World Service and the scale of the Department for International Development (DFID) Spending Review settlement. Some of the activity of the World Service contributes to the wider aims of DFID and it would be appropriate to consider how an additional small element of the DFID budget might be spent on specific activities and projects of the World Service which are consistent with the terms of the International Development Act 2002. A transfer of just 0.35% of DFID’s resource budget over the next three years would compensate for the proposed 16% reduction in World Service funding. There is no reason why such a transfer should not be made if the political will to carry it out is present.

Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Richard Ottaway MP, said:

"We do not believe the decision to transfer funding responsibility for the World Service from the FCO to the BBC will make the World Service's funding more secure. Despite all assurances, this decision could lead to long-term pressure on the World Service budget, with the risk of a gradual diversion of resources to fund other BBC activities. No transfer of funding responsibility for the World Service from the direct FCO Grant-in-Aid to the BBC should take place until satisfactory safeguards have been put in place to prevent any risk of long-term erosion of the World Service's funding and of Parliament's right to oversee its work".

Further information

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