On the Future of the World Service

Bbc_world_service Jo Glanville in the LRB:

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.