The BBC World Service is a force for good – look after it, or risk losing it

Future of World Service precarious but death knell is premature. Lewis Whyld/PA Wire

The BBC World Service is well-known to insomniacs tuning in to Radio 4 in the middle of the night, intrepid travellers, expat Britons and aficionados of international news. Few other British citizens appear to be very aware of, or indeed care much about this international news service targeted at overseas audiences in 28 languages, including English.

But we should care about the World Service not just because very soon we will be paying for it through the licence fee, but because its future is precarious. We might lose a very precious organisation that has been a force for good in the world just because we are ill-informed about its value.

The biggest shake up to the funding and governance of the World Service since World War II is taking place: the Foreign and Commonwealth Office ceases funding the World Service which will henceforth be funded by the licence fee, along with the BBC’s domestic public services.

The BBC Trust sets its budget and overall strategic direction and, with the foreign secretary, agrees the languages in which it operates. It can close specific language services, as it always has done, according to strategic priorities, market competition and/or informational need. Some changes may also require agreement by the secretary of state for culture, media and sport.

The government’s rationale for these changes remains unclear. It will only slowly dawn on licence-fee payers that they are funding a multilingual service for overseas audiences. The danger is that the value of the World Service is going to be judged mainly in terms of value for money and/or the immediate, obvious, tangible benefits that it brings, or rather does not bring, to the taxpayer.

Cost vs benefit

If the public debate is framed in terms of short-term benefits to UK citizens as opposed to long-term investment in fostering international understanding, trust and empathy, this would have damaging consequences. The World Service’s reputation of trust and the benefits that it brings to Britain were built up slowly over eight decades. But trust is very quickly lost, and with it Britain’s place in the world diminished. The World Service is vital to UK “soft power” but its value extends well beyond.

The World Service has been an international public service broadcaster par excellence since its inception, providing a global model for public service broadcasting. Of course, its roots are indisputably colonial, given its incarnation as the Empire Service in 1932. But it is its paradoxical nature that makes it one of the most intriguing of British cultural organisations.

These paradoxes include: its colonial- style cosmopolitanism; its financial dependence on and its editorial independence from government; its reliance on one of the most polyglot workforces in the world to voice credible broadcasts that, ultimately, serve British national interests; and the intimate connection forged with overseas audiences and its silent presence and invisibility in the UK.

Built on an ethos of high-quality, independent professional journalism, the World Service connected colonials overseas to the “Motherland” in the 1930s and 1940s, was a beacon of light when the dark forces of fascism prevailed during World War II and formed a cultural bridge over the Iron Curtain during the Cold War.

From Burma to Baluchistan, it has continually reached people in parts of the world that most other international broadcasters can’t be bothered with. It has offered succour and hope to people living in zones of conflict or disaster, as well as captives and tortured prisoners. It has driven a global news agenda that stands in stark contrast to the parochialism of domestic agendas, national rhetorics and commercial imperatives. And as the consumption of international news declines, as sources of news fragment, as the principle of “fast, first and flawed” bulletins prevails, as social media create a confusing cacophony blurring fact and opinion, the role of the World Service as a key reference point, a fact checker, and a space of civil debate becomes ever more important.

It has been and is one of the most cosmopolitan organisations in the world, building bridges between peoples and languages. UK citizens should be proud of its legacy and the way in which it serves and connects publics at home and abroad.

‘Mothership’ of BBC values

If you think the above accolades rely solely on the subjective views of a supporter you would be wrong. The value of the World Service is demonstrated in Open University research over nearly a decade.

Our research has brought to public light the previously invisible lives and working practices of diasporic staff at World Service. We have demonstrated the significance of its cultivation of a cosmopolitan culture: the myriad ways in which the refugee and exiled writers, linguists and artists who worked at Bush House – the historic home of the WS and a microcosm of the 20th century migrations – influenced and changed the BBC and, as a consequence, Britain.

Our research has investigated its cultural value and traced how the World Service became the foundation of the BBC’s global networks today and, in the words of its former director, John Tusa: “the mothership of all BBC values”.

That is why we should care about the World Service. We should safeguard its deep institutional memory of cosmopolitan practice and move with the times. The licence fee payer stands to gain a great deal from the infusion of World Service values into the BBC’s domestic services. It will give us a domestic BBC news service better adapted to a globally interconnected world – one in which trust, empathy and international understanding reign above parochialism and patriotism.

But if we do care about the World Service then need to ask and seek answers to the following crucial questions: Why has the BBC Trust failed to ring-fence funding for the World Service? Will this failure and the decriminalisation of non-payment of the licence-fee create intolerable financial insecurity for World Service? Given its powerful global voice, why has World Service been deprived of a voice on the BBC’s executive board? How will its interests be protected in the wider BBC? Will World Service be able to maintain its distinctive cosmopolitan voice as it integrates into the wider BBC? Will the historic hierarchies and inequities between the domestic and foreign language services be reproduced in the new home of World Service at New Broadcasting House? And above all, will it continue to be an international public service capable of reaching people and parts of the world that other news services do not or dare not go?

These are vital issues and we need to hold our politicians and the BBC to account to ensure that we don’t lose the most precious part of the BBC.