The World Service is at risk – it needs our support

Portrait of Gareth Benest
Gareth Benest Director of Advocacy, IBT 13th December 2022
Presenter Lebo Diseko presenting BBC Focus on Africa on the World Service

Lebo Diseko presents Focus on Africa. ⓒ BBC Africa

Earlier this month, the House of Lords debated the future of the BBC World Service. Our Advocacy Director, Gareth Benest was watching.

The recent debate on the future of the BBC World Service saw peers from all parties express their deep concern about its future in the light of recently-announced cuts.  We share that concern.  We also share the view of most peers who spoke in the debate that the present funding mechanism is not sustainable in the long term. We all need to do more to support the World Service and ensure that it is properly funded in the future.

Cuts to the World Service were inevitable as a result of BBC-wide cuts necessitated by the Government’s decision to freeze the licence fee for two years. But these cuts won’t just impact global audiences. They will have a negative impact on UK audiences too.

World Service contribution to UK news coverage 

The World Service operates an international network of correspondents, based in 75 news bureaux, producing trusted and reliably-sourced information in 43 languages.  These journalists make a major contribution to the quality and range of international coverage available to UK audiences.

World Service reporters regularly appear on the 10 O’Clock News and on the Today programme.  Their expertise and specialist knowledge help inform and shape how the BBC reports on global issues.  This is particularly valuable when covering issues from countries with limited media freedom, where the World Service can offer specialist insights.  Expert reporting from the ground provides enriched content for national audiences whilst fostering understanding, trust and empathy with people beyond our borders and global issues.

The World Service has been widely praised for its global role but its contribution to UK news services is rarely acknowledged. As the veteran Liberal Democrat peer, Lord McNally, said during the recent debate: “We should also recognise the benefit of the World Service in our whole broadcasting ecology, by providing correspondents with deep empathy and understanding of their home territories.  This feeds into the BBC’s general news coverage and to more general provisions, from documentaries to specialist broadcasts.”

World Service funding needs urgent reform

World Service funding is a complex issue but we share the view of peers – that the present funding arrangement is unsustainable. Before 2010, the World Service was funded entirely by the government. It received an annual grant from the Foreign Office but remained independent and largely free from political interference.  Since the “austerity” years of the Cameron government, funding has come from the licence fee. The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office provides a top up for additional specialist services deemed important for reasons of national security. 

With the BBC facing the prospect of more cuts in the licence fee in the future, regardless of which political party is in government, it’s increasingly clear that the BBC cannot guarantee funding for one of the country’s most important strategic assets (one of Britain’s two key soft power institutions, according to SoftPower30 rankings). This was an issue that we raised in a recent meeting with Liliane Landor, the Director of the World Service.

Let’s make the case for a more sustainable funding model

We believe the World Service should return to being funded entirely by the central government, through the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office that currently provides just 25% of the service’s budget.

In the coming years, we will do all we can to support the World Service and make the case for a more sustainable funding model. This will form a key part of our advocacy with parliamentarians and through the #SaveOurBroadcasting campaign with partner organisations.  We hope our members will help to amplify our messages of support for the World Service and join our call for a return to funding by central government.

Gareth Benest is IBT’s Director of Advocacy

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