Who needs the BBC World Service?

The announcement of cuts to BBC World Service language sections in the wider european neighbourhood is very bad news for strong, independent journalism in the region. But the development of new media technologies mean good journalism should no longer have to rely upon organisations like the BBC.

There was sad news on Wednesday in the world of serious international journalism. The BBC's venerable World Service announced that it was cutting 650 jobs (out of just over 2000), along with five entire language services and the radio services from a handful more. Many of the affected services were in the wider European neighbourhood. On BBC figures, the Serbian, Albanian and Macedonian services have an audience of 1.2 million between them; the combined audience for the European services that will lose their radio broadcasts – Russian, Turkish, Ukrainian and Azeri – is 2.7 million. The ‘Europe Today’ programme is also being taken off air.

For those listeners, and not least of all for the journalists involved, this is obviously bad news. But the closures also beg several other questions relating to issues such as soft power projection, media freedom and the displacement of old media by new.

(At this point, I need to declare an interest – for well over a decade I worked for the BBC, the great majority either in the World Service HQ of Bush House, or as a correspondent with the World Service as my main customer. A large proportion of the podcasts that I listen to every day are made in Bush House, such as the excellent Witness, Business Weekly, and The Interview. I still firmly believe that (on the whole) the WS has better production and editorial standards than almost all other journalistic outlets, with an unparalleled reach that could see top headlines flit seamlessly between the Polisario Front, changes in eurozone interest rates and bomb attacks in Mazar-i-Sharif.)

In pure foreign policy terms the argument in favour of this type of soft power projection was ably summed up by John Tusa, an ex WS boss, who wondered whether anybody would miss the £50million that these cuts would save if they came instead out of the international aid budget. In terms of value for money, he argued, a market-leader such as the BBC was an invaluable part of the UK’s international footprint, and, once dismantled, it would be near-impossible to reassemble.

The media freedom argument is that WS services tend to close when the relevant country moves towards norms of democracy and media freedom that obviate the need for a dedicated BBC service. That was the case for the Finnish, German and Polish services. Is it also the case in Azerbaijan, Russia or Albania (for the latter, ECFR’s Daniel Korski has just written a piece worth reading in the IHT)? The general policy of the WS has been to migrate away from parts of the world where a strong domestic independent media is developing, and instead concentrate efforts in parts of the world where BBC services will have a greater impact – hence the launch of BBC TV services in Arabic and Persian. But sometimes the need to save cash seems to outstrip the growth of a mature journalistic culture. Surely few would argue that some of the countries losing services, such as Azerbaijan and Russia, have reached a point where they have a mature, independent media all of their own.  

Finally, there is the argument that new media is taking on a growing importance – after all, for some of the services, the cuts only affect the ‘old media’ radio operations (although services such as the Albanian section operated effectively over several platforms). Proponents of new media make a strong case for how it is able to transform how journalism is done, largely for the better. Take last year’s eurozone debt crises – A good way to stay across a complex and fast-evolving story was to digest a mixture of expert blogs, such as Eurointelligence, Stephanomics, FT Brussels and Charlemagne, and listen to a handful of relevant podcasts from The Economist, BBC and elsewhere. In comparison, the old media’s coverage was often cumbersome, stuck within its tramlines and timelines, and lacking in agility.

This doesn’t mean that old journalism is dead – many of these new media outlets are, after all, powered by well-established old media names. But it does add weight to the idea that, thanks to the internet, journalism need no longer be the preserve of established organisations.

Yes, this has released something of a tidal wave of rubbish, but it also means that with minimal outlay a serious, expert and perceptive voice can find an audience and speak truth to power across borders. The secret ingredient is the journalistic nous and editorial judgement that the BBC WS was so strong on – this is why citizen journalism does not just mean 16 year olds writing blogs on laptops in their bedrooms. Expert ‘amateur’ blogs on the financial sector, after all, have forced Reuters to rethink their approach to business news and even move into the unchartered waters of opinion.

Why does this matter in connection to the World Service closures? If we are to find a silver lining to this particular cloud, it can be argued that the cuts will lead to a sizeable number of extremely able and dynamic journalists, all trained in the highest editorial and production standards, being let loose in countries crying out for a more mature and balanced media, at a time when the barriers to entry into the media have been lowered considerably. Something similar happened when the BBC closed its operations in countries such as Romania and Poland. Maybe the Albanian, Serb, Macedonian and other journalists that now face the uncertainty of losing their jobs will, in the longer term, form the kernel of a more vibrant domestic journalistic culture in years to come.




The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.

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