Jim Waterson Media editor
Friday September 30, 2022
Broadcasting House (left) in central London, from where the BBC World Service broadcasts. Photograph: Dynasoar/Getty Images/iStockphoto
The BBC has announced deep cuts to its World Service output that will result in the loss of hundreds of jobs, saying it has been forced to act by the government’s ongoing licence fee freeze.BBC Persian will end its audio broadcasts aimed at Iran, with the announcement coming at a time when widespread protests are taking place in the country.
In a move that could weaken the UK’s soft power around the world, the corporation will stop producing radio output in 10 languages, including Chinese, Hindi, and Arabic.
There will also be a change in focus of the World Service’s English-language radio output, with more time dedicated to live news and sports programming at the expense of standalone programmes.
About 382 jobs will be lost as a result of the proposals, which the BBC said was required to make £28.5m of annual savings. The broadcaster blamed years of below-inflation licence fee freezes imposed by the government, in addition to the rapidly increasing cost of producing programmes because of the state of the economy.
Philippa Childs of the broadcasting union Bectu said she recognised the BBC needed to adapt to the digital era but that the government’s licence fee freeze has “potential ramifications for the BBC’s reputation globally”.
The World Service was traditionally funded directly by the government and was seen as a soft power tool that provided British news and information to hundreds of millions of people around the globe. This money largely dried up as part of George Osborne’s austerity measures in 2010, when the bill for World Service operations was loaded on to domestic licence fee payers.
Since then the BBC has had to go cap-in-hand to the government to seek extra funding to support specific World Service projects, with ministers providing around £400m in additional cash since 2016. However, there are doubts about how long these deals will continue. Earlier this year the BBC had to ask ministers for an emergency £4m to keep its operations in Ukraine and Russia on air.
A BBC spokesperson said the UK Foreign Office had been consulted over the latest cuts and no country would lose its World Service content altogether, with digital operations continuing in all languages.
There will be a net loss of 226 jobs in the UK and 156 overseas. Despite the funding cuts, the BBC claims the World Service still reaches a weekly audience of about 364 million people.
Some foreign-language World Service teams based in London will move to the countries they serve, such as Thai services shifting to Bangkok, the Korean service to Seoul, and the Bangla service to Dhaka. Several staff on those services said they expect to take redundancy rather than relocate, resulting in a loss of institutional knowledge.
Television bulletins in Gujarati, Somali and Urdu will also stop, with Igbo, Indonesian and Yoruba language services going online-only.
The BBC will also shift its focus away from providing news bulletins to overseas broadcasters and instead try to convince audiences to use the BBC’s own outlets and website.