BBC World Service faces an uncertain future

For decades millions have tuned in around the globe, but now the BBC World Service is in crisis, facing severe budget cuts it may not survive as it is handed over to the domestic BBC.

Throughout her 15 years of house arrest, the Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi had a bank of radios to make up for her inability to get out and meet people. She listened to the BBC World Service for about six hours a day.

"I never felt alone. All that time, the BBC kept me in touch with the world," she said on her release in November. An American diplomat who visited her at her lakeside villa commented: "She knows more about the world than almost any other person I've met."

Such accolades are what the 2,000 staff who work for the BBC World Service - in English and 31 other languages - live for. It is almost as good as the praise lavished on the BBC Russian service by Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet president, who declared after emerging from house arrest by communist hardliners in 1991: "The BBC was the best."

If you were going to be left alone on a desert island, the one thing you would want to keep you sane would be a wind-up radio. But best not to stay on that island too long. The BBC World Service is going through a crisis, one that many think it will struggle to survive.

While the BBC as a whole remains a giant among global broadcasters, the venerable World Service, with its radio broadcasts to the farthest ends of the earth, is facing its deepest budget cuts.

Hundreds of staff will have to go, and grim bets are being placed on which language services are for the chop. Officially the budget is to be slashed by 16 per cent, but the cuts could reportedly be as high as 26 per cent if the pensions deficit is to be cleared.

Not surprisingly, morale is falling. A staffer who covers Africa says: "I try to keep my head down and do my job. I cannot think about the future."

A newly retired editor sighs: "The World Service is dying slowly. No one decided to kill it. It's just that there is no strategy beyond saving money."

Is it really that bad? All journalists like to moan about their employers. What is true is that the British government has fallen into disastrous debt and is slashing all expenditure.

The World Service is currently funded by a Foreign Office grant of £272 million (Dh1.5bn). In order to save the jobs of diplomats, the Foreign Office has hived off the broadcaster to the domestic BBC, which now has to find funds from its squeezed budget to support external broadcasting.

The problem is that the BBC is funded by the so-called licence fee - a tax on every household with a television in Britain of £145 per year. Licence fee-payers, egged on by the right-wing press which hates the BBC as a manifestation of socialism, are not likely to want to see their money spent on radio for Hausa-speakers in west Africa (60 million of whom tune in daily) when the money could go on glitzier TV talent shows.

The financial crisis has sent shock waves around the world. Devoted listeners from far and wide have written in to the BBC to volunteer to pay the licence fee to support the World Service. Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, personally lobbied the BBC director-general Mark Thompson not to abandon the airwaves to anti-western broadcasters.

Thompson defends the new arrangements, saying he rescued the best possible deal for the BBC when ambushed by a cuts-hungry government.

The World Service, he says, will have a secure home within the BBC and will be insulated from future Foreign Office budget cuts. "However well-resourced the BBC is, we cannot afford to run two global news operations," he told The Guardian newspaper last month.

The fear is that its unique news values will be lost when the World Service is swallowed up by the BBC domestic arm, which is influenced by the rambunctious news values of British tabloids.

Jean Seaton, a professor at Westminster University and the official historian of the BBC, says the World Service's news values enable it to find a space in the minds of foreign audiences. Unlike Voice of America, which offers Washington's view of the world, it is not overt propaganda but rather a more subtle promotion of British values.

"The value of the World Service lies in understanding how the audience hears things, and being frank about where we are coming from," Seaton says.

"The big question for the future is, how do you preserve that when, managerially and financially, the World Service and the domestic service are coming together?"

External broadcasting is not static. The radio spawned BBC World News television which is not funded by the licence fee, but (unusually for the BBC) by advertising.

The radio no longer caters for far-flung expats who want game shows that would be incomprehensible in Accra. Such people resent losing their favourite programmes but the truth is that they can get domestic BBC radio on the web.

By cutting out some of the language services, the BBC launched Persian and Arabic television services. The Persian service has captured an audience inside Iran (and won the undying loathing of the government) for reporting the complex story of the struggle between government and opposition.

The Arabic TV, operating in a crowded market, has failed to make its mark, in the opinion of many observers. While it is slick, it has no convincing "narrative" to challenge Al Jazeera in Arabic. And the field is going to get even more crowded next year with Sky's Arabic service opening in Abu Dhabi.

Experts are asking whether it was sensible to close down six language services to set it up.

Sir John Tusa, the former director of the World Service, says the broadcaster has to stick to old-fashioned values and avoid the trap of being "twisted into a slightly international version of the domestic BBC'S news agenda".

It is easy to predict how that could happen. If the BBC has a choice between a correspondent in Birmingham and a World Service correspondent in Washington (who reports on the US from the point of view of someone in the Middle East, Africa or Latin America), the domestic option is likely to triumph.

Phil Harding, the former director of news at the World Service and now a global media consultant, says the cuts will be "large-scale and brutal".

But still he sees a great future for an integrated BBC. The World Service, he says, was too "insular" and the domestic service could benefit from a more global outlook, particularly when the world is growing more complex and the power of the West is waning.

"It is going to be a very difficult 12 months. This is a great opportunity for the World Service and the whole of the BBC. The World Service is more than capable of dealing with this challenge. There is competition from every corner of the globe but the BBC can still stand out."

Such optimism is in short supply. There are some who think that the World Service will eventually go the way of the audio cassette in today's fast-changing media market. After all, in future the likes of Suu Kyi and Gorbachev will have smart phones, won't they? No need for twiddling dials to get the best short-wave reception. An accountant would say, strip it all down to a few foreign language websites.

How things work out depends on whether Thompson and the rest of the BBC management are ready to fight the battle for the BBC to be heard in every corner of the world.

During the Cold War, the BBC faced down the communist broadcasters. Thompson now faces a challenge closer to home: the little-Britain lobby who do not see why, at a time when the government is cutting half a million public sector jobs at home, they should be paying for radio for people who do not pay British taxes.

This article has been altered to reflect that Phil Harding is the former director of news at the World Service and now a global media consultant, not Phil Hall as originally published.