At the end of January the BBC announced that its World Service division would close five of its 32 language services and reduce its workforce by about a quarter, cutting around 650 jobs over the next three years. The World Service, which began broadcasting in 1932, is one of Britain’s most distinctive exports, known all over the globe for its independent and uncensored news programming. On an annual budget that is currently at $433 million it maintains a staff of 2,400 and reaches a listening and viewing audience of about 180 million people a week across television, radio and the internet.
A reputation money can’t buy
The journalist and author Misha Glenny (The Balkans, McMafia: A Journey Through the Criminal Underworld and the forthcoming Dark Market, on cybercrime) is a former World Service staffer himself; in 1989 he was a young reporter covering eastern Europe who found himself on the front lines as things unraveled and the Velvet revolutions spread from Poland to Serbia and everywhere in between. Glenny’s experience of what the World Service provides is thus rooted in the countless stories he’s reported, taped and filed himself. “It was very important in the Yugoslav wars and very important in Albania before the revolution there,” he continues. “It’s very important in Burma today. And it’s an incredibly cheap way of spreading a message about the U.K. It’s impartial, it’s something you can rely on and it sends a positive message across the world. You cannot buy that reputation—nothing compares to it—and it’s being thrown away overnight.”
Unlike the rest of the BBC, the World Service up until now has been financed directly by the British Foreign Office. “Working for it is often very region-specific,” Glenny explains. “You could really be in charge of your brief. If you knew your territory, you could identify what was important and control your agenda as a journalist.” In 1989, before internet and mobile communication were factors (except for a tiny elite), what this meant was that, particularly in countries with authoritarian regimes, the role of the World Service was critical. “Everyone was listening to you. This was particularly striking in the Yugoslav war, and because we had the language services, it wasn’t just diplomats and English speakers of the local population, it was also everyone listening in their own languages, translated, Albanian, Serbian or whatever. Language Services generate some of their own material, but largely they are obliged to take the bulletins from the central World Service editorial desk.”
Unlike, for example, the U.S. government’s Voice of America broadcasts, which ultimately are there to propagate the official point of view, the World Service “is quite clearly editorially independent from the government and Foreign Office—you’re not playing to their tune,” says Glenny. “Only once in the time I worked there did the Foreign Office get in touch with me, during the bombing of Sarajevo by Serbian forces. I was actually in Belgrade, and a colleague in Sarajevo had reported the use of cluster bombs. The chargé d’affaires called to ask if I could verify that. ‘Why are you so keen to know?’ I said. ‘Because we supplied them with the cluster bombs,’ he told me.” Neither then nor on any other occasion, Glenny says, was any attempt ever made to get him to change a story or otherwise influence his reporting. Maintaining that independence, he adds, is part of the reason why the editorial strategy is based on a central news service. “That way, you weren’t there as an advocate for change in a particular area, but primarily to tell people who had no access to objective news what was going on, around the world as well as in their own region.” That was and still is the philosophy of the World Service.
Slash and burn
The cuts announced by Mark Thompson, the Director-General of the BBC—part of an across-the-board slashing of government spending generally—include closing the Macedonian, Serbian and Albanian services, as well as ending English-language broadcasts in the Caribbean and Portuguese services in Africa. Broadcasts to China, Russia, Ukraine and Turkey will be cut, as well as evening radio in Arabic. In addition, the service will cut programming in Mandarin Chinese, Russian, Turkish, Vietnamese, Ukrainian and Azeri, as well as Spanish radio broadcasts to Cuba. Glenny feels that these cuts mean essentially the World Service will be subsumed into domestic operations and will fall under the news agendas of Radio 4 and BBC News, both of which take priority over it.
Burying the bad news
An issue that goes beyond the cuts themselves, says Glenny, is that they are a preface to something he feels is potentially more dangerous. “In two years’ time, the BBC has committed to taking over funding the World Service from the Foreign Office. They were bullied into doing it, and it’s a very dangerous situation,” he continues. “Jeremy Hunt [the Secretary for Culture of the Conservative/Lib-Dem coalition government] wanted the BBC to take more financial responsibility for its services, and demanded that it begin absorbing the cost of senior citizens’ TV license fees.” (In England, everyone who has a television has to pay a license fee of £145.50, which goes to help finance the BBC; people over 70 are exempted.)
Thompson, the Director-General, bargained his way out of what would clearly become a catastrophic drain on BBC resources, given an aging population and a younger generation increasingly watching TV on devices other than television sets—by offering to take over the World Service funding. “I imagine he had very few options, but not enough fuss was made. It was all done under huge pressure and in a rush over Christmas,” says Glenny. Always a good time to bury bad news.
The rest of the organization, Glenny says, already sees the World Service as a poor relation. “The people who work for the domestic BBC aren’t interested in it, even though much of the information is shared. I have to stress,” he continues, “that the World Service runs on a shoestring budget—15 percent of what domestic radio gets, despite serving 180 million people worldwide. TV and domestic radio suck up most of the money. No one goes to work for the World Service expecting to become rich and famous.”
More vital than ever
Glenny insists that with the introduction of new media the World Service is more vital than ever. “After all,” he points out, “anybody can write any old crap and put it out there, but we still need real news to be edited.” This means listeners know that when they hear a BBC World Service report that it has undergone editorial scrutiny, verified by at least two reliable sources in situ or by one full-on correspondent seen as a reliable source. “Who uses the new media — do Burmese peasants use it? The people who don’t use it are poor people, so with these cuts what we’re really saying is, let’s get rid of this thing and replace it with something that the disenfranchised can’t access. I just don’t buy it.”—LUCY SISMAN