Hague unmoved by World Service pleas

By Alex Stevenson

Cuts to the BBC’s World Service endangering its future should be reversed by the government, according to a committee of MPs.

The Commons’ foreign affairs committee want ministers to think again over the 16% reduction in funding for the World Service seen in the spending review, much more than the ten per cent cut handed to the wider Foreign Office.

A report published today points out that the World Service promotes British values across the globe extremely effectively, leading to former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan calling it “perhaps Britain’s greatest gift to the world”.

Foreign secretary William Hague has responded by insisting that the World Service must accept the cuts “in line with all other publicly-funded bodies”, however.

Under existing plans funding responsibility will be transferred to the BBC, placing the World Service’s future in what MPs fear could be serious danger.

“The value of the World Service in promoting the UK across the globe, by providing a widely respected and trusted news service, far outweighs its relatively small cost,” committee chair Richard Ottaway said.

“The recent dramatic events in North Africa and the Middle East have shown that the ‘soft power’ wielded through the World Service could bring even more benefits to the UK in the future than it has in the past, and that to proceed with the planned cuts to the World Service would be a false economy.”

MPs established that the final decision to cut the World Service’s budget was made just 48 hours before the formal announcement of the change – and that government discussions with the BBC only began nine days beforehand.

They fear switching funding responsibility to the BBC could lead to long-term pressure on the World Service budget, as its spending is gradually diverted to fund other BBC activities.

Ministers should consider diverting some money from the Department for International Development’s (DfID) budget, MPs argued, because some of the World Service’s activities contribute to DfIDs wider aims.

Just 0.35% of DfId’s annual budget would make up the World Service shortfall, the report pointed out.

“The BBC World Service performs an invaluable role, reflecting British democratic values overseas and supporting British influence in the world,” Mr Hague said.

“However, in line with all other publicly-funded bodies, it must play its part in reducing the deficit.

“We have spent many months working with the BBC World Service to make sure that the budget reductions are manageable and the BBC has been clear that the transfer of funds from to the Licence Fee in 2014/15 will not make the World Service’s funding less secure.

“I have also been discussing the relevant sections of the BBC Agreement with the World Service which will guarantee that I will continue to have oversight of objectives for the World Service, and the opening and closing of language services will continue to require my written authority.”