Earlier today the BBC’s World Service announced that it was to cut 650 jobs – nearly a third of its work force of 2,000 – following a 16 percent reduction in funding from Britain’s Foreign Office.
Thirty million listeners are expected to be lost as a result of the cuts, with foreign-language services shutting down in Serbia, Macedonia, Albania, the Caribbean, and Portuguese services for Africa. Broadcasts in China, Russia, Ukraine, and Turkey are also set to be affected.
Broadcasting to 180 million people in 32 languages, the World Service is one of Britain’s most recognizable exports. But since the UK’s coalition government came to power last year, the service has come under increasing pressure to justify its existence.
In 2014 the Foreign Office will cut funding altogether, with the service subsequently being propped up via the BBC license fee. This, coupled with cuts to the BBC’s domestic services, have incensed many fee-payers in the UK who argue that broadcasts outside Britain should not be paid for by them.
Many in the UK misunderstand the service’s role, though, believing that it’s no more than a lavish resource for homesick expats. The World Service’s most crucial programming is not that broadcast in English, but rather the foreign-language services that provide an invaluable commentary on events in areas often not served by domestic services.
There’s no denying that the World Service, which was founded in 1932, needs to adapt to survive in an evolving media and political landscape, but equally its editorial independence must be supported. For all its faults, it remains a distinctly impartial service untainted by the commercial agenda of private broadcasters and the underhanded propaganda pumped out by less balanced state-subsidized broadcasters.
The BBC’s hardest task will be to prove to its domestic market just why the World Service represents value for money while at the same time providing some serious damage limitation to its millions of overlooked international listeners who rely on the broadcaster.