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The Times - March 5th 2012
Birthday parties are not always happy occasions. One, probably apocryphal, story of one of Sir John Gielgud’s parties during his 80s has the great thespian beginning his thank-you speech by saying that he was very grateful to his friends for coming, but he hoped they realized that his real friends had died years ago. There was a bit of that feeling at the 80th birthday party for the BBC World Service on March 1st. It was full of friends, including the foreign secretary, William Hague. But were they its real friends?
As Mr Hague said in his speech, the World Service’s truest friends and fans are people like Aung San Suu Kyi, the brave Burmese opposition leader who said recently that the BBC had been her lifeline during her long years of house arrest. Or they are ordinary people suffering under fierce repression, as in Syria, or from twisted or restricted information, as in Russia or Iran, or beset by the confusion of war, as in Somalia, for all of whom the BBC services are a beacon of reliability, credibility and sheer professionalism.
Barely anyone in British politics would dispute this. The question, however, is how much value you put upon it, relative to other uses of money, including uses for similar purposes, such as helping people to escape poverty. The coalition government in 2010 showed that its answer is: not much. It is not among the World Service’s real friends.
For it decided to exempt overseas aid from its spending cuts, raising the Department for International Development’s budget to £7.8 billion in 2010-11 and ultimately to £11.5 billion by 2014-15, while dumping the BBC World Service from the Foreign Office’s budget with effect from 2014, forcing it to be subsumed under the licence fee, and cutting its spending immediately by 16%. This was, it seems to me, exactly the wrong way round.
Ah, but in these days of austerity, everyone must play their part, runs the argument, including BBC journalists. Indeed so, but at such times low-cost ways to achieve objectives should surely be valued and nurtured. The World Service is a supremely cheap way to help the poor and vulnerable, while boosting Britain’s reputation at the same time.
What do you think the World Service costs each year, both for radio and for its Arabic and Persian television channels? The answer is an amazingly small £287m in 2011, which is less than 3.7% of that DFID annual budget, and is roughly equal to the overseas aid we sent just to India in that year. Or it is about the same as the cost of building the Aquatic Centre for the London Olympics. Or it would buy you four Eurofighter typhoon planes.
These are different things, but they have something in common: they are all there to further Britain’s reputation and influence around the world, and to provide a public benefit. My proposition is this. The boon to Britain’s reputation and influence that comes from the BBC World Service is worth at least ten times that of all our overseas aid, is incomparably more valuable than a pool that will be seen for a few weeks and will just look wet, like any other, and will help more people endure or escape repression than any number of Eurofighters.
I may be biased against Olympic pools and sceptical about costly fighter planes, but I am not against overseas aid. At times of natural disasters and wars, it plays an immensely important humanitarian role. At other times, it can be a way to get resources and know-how into the hands of ordinary people, bypassing the corruption and abuses of their governments. But let us be realistic about it. No country has ever escaped poverty thanks to overseas aid.
Last week, the World Bank published rather heartwarming research showing that the number of people living in absolute poverty fell in every part of the world between 2005 and 2008, and (on less comprehensive data) has continued to fall since then, despite population growth and despite scares about rising food prices. China is the biggest reason for this, but even in Africa the numbers of the poorest have been falling during the past seven years. None of this gain was attributed to aid from Britain or anywhere else.
You don’t have to agree with me that the World Service is worth ten times our overseas aid budget. As a journalist, I admit I adore hearing the sonorous tones of World Service news-readers saying things like “There has been a coup in Guinea-Bissau”. But I ask you to agree that if we were to cut DFID’s annual budget by 3.7%, no one would notice and Britain’s influence would be unaffected. If we were to scrap the BBC World Service there would be a huge outcry, poor and repressed people everywhere would be worse off, and governments around the world would think we had gone bonkers.
Now, no one is proposing to scrap the World Service. But the reason that 80th birthday party was suffused with foreboding was that along with the budget cuts it is moving from its long-time home of Bush House, on the Aldwych, to the newly refurbished Broadcasting House, and being merged with all the other news services. As a result, it is afraid that as a small, strange animal, speaking Somali and Swahili, it will be trampled by the elephant that is the domestic BBC.
Some of this, no doubt, is just the usual grumbling about change. Plenty of people, from Lord Patten, the BBC Chairman, down, have made strongly reassuring noises about how much the World Service is valued. DFID and the Foreign Office have coughed up a bit of money (£4m each) for BBC Media Action, a foundation for helping foster media professionalism overseas.
Nevertheless, the fears are real, as is the risk to Britain’s reputation and influence—not just in five years’ time but in decades to come. Joseph Nye, the Harvard political scientist, called this influence “soft power”, the power to persuade and make people want what you want, as opposed to the hard sort that comes from the barrels of guns. In the BBC’s case, it is actually the power to make hundreds of millions of people admire your country, despite its many real flaws. One of which is an abject failure to recognise its own greatest assets.