Can Chris Patten save the World (Service)?

World Service has been down in the dumps recently.  I have very personal experience of this!  Massive cuts, language services disappearing, loved and valued colleagues leaving.  The government cut 16% of the World Service’s £270m budget in last year’s Spending Review and that hurt.

But today came the news that Bush House gets a bit of a reprieve – a little over £2m a year from the Foreign Office to prop up the Arabic Service.

The BBC also found £9m down the back of its sofa to prop up Hindi broadcasts on short wave (there was a LOT of anger in Bush House when it was announced these were to go.)

Let’s not get too excited; that’s a drop in the ocean and major cuts and staff losses will still go ahead.

On a positive note, it’s a sign that Bush House does have its fans in high places.  On June 12th, the Sunday Telegraph published an interview with Chris Patten, the new Chairman of the BBC, in which he vowed to fight to save the World Service from spending cuts.  He was particularly keen to support Arabic, Somali and Hindi services.

The World Service needs all the friends it can get at the moment as it prepares to merge with the rest of BBC news in W1 (Broadcasting House).  It’s fair to say that most people in the Bush House newsroom I speak to are genuinely concerned that the distinctive journalism, agenda, remit, tone and language of the World Service will be lost when it is a small corner in the domain of the loud and powerful domestic news channels.  World Service managers and programme editors will need to develop extremely sharp elbows and adapt to a very different culture if it is to preserve its voice.

So whilst I’m delighted that the government has found more money to support World Service, I’m not sure it has such passionate support within BBC news itself (let alone amongst license-fee payers who may wonder why they should support radio programmes for people in Somalia) where it is often regarded as a quaint remnant of a colonial age – although very useful when a big story breaks overseas and BBC news hasn’t managed to get a “real” reporter there yet.

One incident from a few years back sticks very firmly in my mind as I chew my nails and worry about the future of the World Service.  I remember once setting up an interview for World Service with a non-BBC contributor “down the line.”  The contributor was being looked after at the other end by a BBC News producer.  Before they realised I could hear them, I heard the producer explaining to my contributor that this interview was for “World Service – the one that broadcasts to ex-pats.”  I jumped in to explain that World Service was NOT a service for ex-pats.  For one thing, we have an audience of 125 million (I can’t remember the exact figure at the time, but something pretty big) and I really didn’t think there were 125 million British ex-pats in the world.  The producer wasn’t interested and I could sense her rolling her eyes at my contributor.

I’m not saying everyone in BBC news has that attitude towards World Service, but it does exist.  So there is an internal culture which World Service will have to defend itself against pretty strongly as programmes fight for diminishing resources.

On the subject of BBC funding, Martin Bell stepped into the debate this month with an article in the British Journalism Review.  As BBC News and World Service are looking for savings of 20%, he criticises “wasteful practices.”  Top of his list of gripes is the relatively recent fashion for sending news “anchors” (as domestic BBC TV newsreaders seem to have become) to far away places to stand in the general vicinity of a Big Story and read scripts off an autocue, rather than reading them from the autocue in Television Centre.  The anchor still hands to the actual correspondents to report the story so, as Martin Bell asks, how does this add to the newsgathering or news-sharing process?  Even Helen Boaden, the director of news, seems to have come round to the idea that this is possibly just a bit of a gimmick rather than core journalistic activity.

In some ways, the practice of sending Huw Edwards to distant locations is more annoying to journalists in the World Service Newsroom than the knowledge that some of our senior executives are getting huge salaries (something Chris Patten says he’s going to deal with.)  It’s not because they have anything against Huw Edwards himself.  It’s just because they know the huge expense involved in sending him and his team overseas and the minimum journalism it generates – at a time when BBC News has lost so many good reporters from the Delhi Bureau, for example. What message does that send to the license-fee payer?

So, the World Service is under threat from the merger with BBC news and the general cuts facing all networks.  But it also needs to look to its own house as it faces the future rather than just feeling hard done by.  World Service is brand-rich but resource-poor.  It needs to capitalise on the former and learn to live with the latter because that’s not going to change any time soon.  Since it is inevitable that it’s going to lose correspondents and reporters in so many interesting corners of the globe, it needs to find other ways of telling the global news and probably new ways of delivering (or sharing) it.  It is already doing that with in-house reporters who know how to curate social media, filter out the noise, VERIFY (Gay Girl in Damascas, anyone?) and explain the context.  It has multilingual staff from all over the world who can do this. But it needs more staff who are skilled to do that.  And fewer who can’t, I’m afraid.  Other, leaner organisations are already amazingly good at reporting the world in this way but they don’t have the internal expertise, culture and trusted brand that the World Service has built up over the years.

Perhaps that’s what Peter Horrocks, the Director of World Service, was thinking about when he talked about “partnerships” at the LSE on 10th June at the annual Polis journalism conference on Media and Power.  He was taking part in a debate on the role of International Journalism and paying for a public service and he explained that because funding is being reduced, it is no longer possible for journalists to do their jobs all by themselves. Partnership is essential, whether it is with NGOs, technology organizations, or other broadcasters.

He has a huge task on his hands.

Leave a Reply