Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Is there a future for BBC World Service?

Apparently there is. The UK Foreign Affairs Committee has published its findings into the funding of BBC World Service. It looks to me like the situation is that the BBC World Service is to get slightly more money, but less influence at the top. And note that the running of the World Service is now very much under the umbrella of the News Group Board. Personally, I worry about the future of many of the factual feature programmes that the World Service has been good at doing in the past. The comedy programme W1A is a bit too close to the truth of the way ideas are killed by committees.

From the FAC report.

On Tuesday 1 April 2014, responsibility for funding the BBC World Service will transfer from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) to the BBC. Taxpayer funding in the form of FCO Grant in Aid will cease, and the main burden of the cost of the World Service will be met from the BBC Licence Fee. No increase in the Licence Fee has been agreed to offset this new demand on resources.

2. We have had serious reservations about the transfer from the outset. In April 2011, we deemed the risks so severe that we recommended that no transfer should take place until satisfactory safeguards had been put in place to prevent long-term erosion of the World Service's funding and of Parliament's right to oversee its work. This report summarises concerns which we expressed then and in subsequent reports and which have, if anything, become more marked with the passage of time.[1] We also take into account recent oral evidence from Peter Horrocks, Director of BBC Global News and the de facto head of the World Service; from James Harding, who is Director of BBC News and the person responsible for representing the World Service's interests on the BBC Executive Board; and from Lord Williams of Baglan, International Trustee at the BBC Trust.

BBC World Service funding

1.  We welcome the undertaking by the Director of News at the BBC to maintain the budget for the World Service up until the end of the current licence fee period, and his assurance that the next two years of funding will use the 2014-15 budget as a baseline. We urge the BBC to announce detailed funding allocations for 2015-16 and 2016-17 as soon as possible, to enable not just the World Service but also other divisions of the BBC to plan over the longer term. (Paragraph 7)


2.  We have clear differences with the BBC on governance of the World Service. We respect the arguments made by the Director of News in defence of the new arrangements, but it remains to be seen whether they will indeed safeguard the distinct nature of the World Service. We regret that the BBC has moved from a position where the Director of the World Service was a very senior person within the organisation to one where the World Service has no direct voice on the Executive Board or the Management Board, and where the Director is just one of many competing voices on the News Group Board which will take decisions on how the World Service should meet its objectives and targets under the Operating Licence. We do not depart from the reservations which we have expressed in the past about the transfer of funding responsibility and the consequential changes in governance, and we recommend that the BBC should at least allow for direct representation of the World Service at the Management Board—and preferably the Executive Board—on a temporary basis, for five years, while the new funding arrangements for the World Service settle.
In response to our arguments on representation of the BBC World Service on the BBC Executive, the Government said that the make-up of the Executive Board of the BBC was a matter for the BBC, and the BBC has twice rejected our arguments. The first time, in June 2013, it said merely that "the whole of the Executive Board, which includes the Director of News, is accountable to the Trust for delivering the strategy of the World Service".[15] The second time, in February 2014, it said that
    the World Service is championed at the highest levels of the BBC and is represented on the Executive Board by the Director of News and Current Affairs ... This collective commitment to the World Service should be measured by what we promise to deliver-growth in World Service audiences, a better, richer news service for both global and UK audiences, and a sustained reputation for the BBC as the most trusted news provider in the world-rather than by representation on the Board or management committees.
Since we received that response, it has been announced that the World Service Board (which takes operational decisions on the World Service's output and on allocation of resources) will cease to exist, and decisions regarding World Service operations will in future be made by the News Group Board. Mr Harding told us that the News Group Board was formed of representatives from across the news division, including those responsible for newsgathering across the BBC, for the newsroom (with oversight of all news bulletins), and for political programming. He also told us that there were no plans to dispense with the post of Director of the World Service.

The role of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office

3.  We will continue to speak up for the BBC World Service and its role in projecting the values and interests of the UK across the world. We urge the Foreign Secretary to do the same. We are encouraged to hear that frequent contact between the BBC and the FCO is likely to continue. We were pleased to hear the Foreign Secretary say that he would always "hold the BBC's feet to the fire" in protecting the interests of the World Service. We urge him and his successors to honour that commitment. 
“The World Service will be at the heart of the BBC’s news operation, and as such will be represented at the Executive Board by the Director of News, James Harding.”
On budget
“The Director-General of the BBC is clear that he will champion the interests of the World Service. At a tough financial time for the BBC, he has confirmed an increased budget of £245m for next year and pledged to maintain this budget, supplementing it with extra investment for digital if possible.

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