Fight for the World Service: the globally respected voice of Britain is getting fainter

The BBC World Service has lost resources and its much loved home in Bush House; by 2014 it will have lost a quarter of its staff and its traditional source of funding. What hope is there for the institution Kofi Annan called "Britain's greatest gift to the world in the twentieth century"?

Long before globalisation, there was Bush House. Home to the BBC World Service – grand in parts, beautiful in its own labyrinthine way, Bush House nurtured multiple languages and cultures for more than seventy years. That era is now over.

In the last fortnight the last of the language services have left for the purpose-built news centre in new Broadcasting House, as have English current affairs programmes. When the final radio news bulletin goes out to the world this Thursday that’ll be it. The end of a broadcasting era – and possibly of much more too.

Of course, the BBC World Service goes on. Animated Russians spill out of studios a few kilometres across town. Indonesians smoke pungent clove cigarettes in Portland Place instead of the Strand. They’re working out of a first class, brand new broadcasting centre, so let’s put sentimentality about an old building aside.

But Bush House was always much more than its marble-clad staircases, cluttered offices and art deco halls. Even within the sometimes haughty circles of the far bigger domestic BBC (and certainly amongst its competitors) “Bush” was respected as an ethos as much as a place: the embodiment of thoughtful, outward looking journalism and a hub of international expertise.

Will that survive as the World Service moves in to new Broadcasting House, with the rest of the London-based BBC? If this were just a physical move, I’d give it more than a fighting chance. But the emptying of Bush House coincides with the slashing of World Service budgets – and more. The Foreign Office, once its funder and protector, is casting the corporation’s international arm adrift, leaving it to sink or swim inside an embattled BBC that’s in no position to be generous.  

The changes were announced in late 2010 when the World Service was adapting to ever smaller budgets. Suddenly the new Conservative government demanded further savings – of 16%. Five language services closed almost immediately. Radio broadcasts in seven others stopped, including Russian and Chinese (they’re mostly online services now, there’s also Russian TV). Shortwave signals in six more were switched off. The BBC’s only daily English language programme dedicated to European news disappeared.

Those were the headlines – and they were met with an outcry from MPs of various shades – but there were many other casualties: an editor here, a producer there. A researcher seat suddenly empty, fewer slots for original documentaries, more repeats. And, perhaps most ominous, the letting go of the experts. Off went the China, Russia and Central Asia specialists. The brilliant Arab analyst Magdi Abdelhadi left – right in the middle of the Arab Spring. These were people you could call on at a minute’s notice to deliver live analysis on air. As a former presenter, I can’t count the number of times I leant on their insight and expertise. Their jobs no longer exist.

There are of course still many people within the World Service with extraordinary knowledge and a real interest in the forgotten as well as the more commonly reported parts of the world. They are amongst the BBC’s greatest assets, the staff who lend authority and credibility to BBC news and current affairs. But for how much longer?

In that same spending review, the Foreign Office announced that from 2014 it would no longer fund the World Service through a grant-in-aid. It’ll be paid for through the television licence fee, just like any other part of the BBC.

Except of course it’s not like any other part of the BBC. While up to 2 million people a week do listen to World Service English radio programmes in the UK, that’s not who the broadcasts are meant for. Everything World Service radio does is directed at its 180 million strong audiences abroad. When it comes to deciding whose needs and wants come first there’s no way the BBC bosses, answerable to the licence fee payer at home, can put the foreigners anywhere near the top of the list.

Promises have been made about budgets being protected. Affectionate lip service has been paid to the importance of the World Service. Even the Foreign Secretary William Hague, who was responsible for the savage cuts (far bigger than in any other part of the foreign office budget) and the sudden funding change, thinks the World Service “should remain an articulate and powerful voice for Britain in the world, and a trusted provider of impartial and independent news.”

That’s good of him. I’m not sure how it’ll happen without real commitment from government, and from the top of the BBC. There must be a recognition that the Bush House ethos, even without Bush House, must be kept alive. They could start by explaining to the British public why the World Service is worth paying for. It is, after all Britian’s most successful export, one of the few institutions bar the monarchy that provokes both affection and respect for this country overseas.

The World Service has lost resources and its much loved home; by 2014 it will have lost a quarter of its staff and its traditional source of funding. Yes there will be benefits from working more closely with colleagues from other departments day to day. But there are also threats. You can’t blame the incredibly dedicated World Service staff for worrying that they are about to be swallowed up by the domestic-facing BBC.

“Nation shall speak peace unto nation” is the BBC’s motto. And so it shall. But the respected voice of this nation is already getting fainter. With the closing of Bush House, it’s going to need all the help it can get to be heard.

About the author

Claire Bolderson is a news journalist and documentary maker with more than 25 years’ experience at the BBC. She was presenter of Newshour on the World Service and The World Tonight on Radio 4.