On 1 December 2022, the House of Lords is scheduled to debate the following motion:

Lord Alton of Liverpool (Crossbench) to move that this House takes note of the importance of the BBC World Service and the impact of cuts to its services.

1. What is the BBC World Service?

1.1 Background

The BBC was first formed as the British Broadcasting Company by a group of wireless manufacturers on 18 October 1922. The British Broadcasting Corporation was established by a royal charter in January 1927.

In 2022, the BBC celebrated its centenary. However, in their book, ‘BBC World Service: Overseas Broadcasting 1932–2018’, Gordon Johnston and Emma Robertson have noted that December 1932 was the BBC’s “first foray into overseas broadcasting”. They describe how the BBC Empire Service “broadcast in English to Australasia, Africa, India, Burma and the Federated Malay States, Canada, Trinidad, British Guiana and the West Indies”. In fact, although the term “BBC World Service” (BBCWS) was used from 1965 to describe elements of the BBC’s overseas broadcasting services, it was not until 1988 that the title was adopted for all the BBC’s non-commercial overseas broadcasting services, irrespective of language.

The BBC defines the characteristics, remit and scope of the BBCWS as follows:

The World Service broadcasts and distributes news and other content in a range of genres aimed primarily at users outside the UK. It provides services in English and other languages on TV, radio and digital platforms.

The World Service makes a global contribution to the BBC’s mission to act in the public interest, serving all audiences through the provision of impartial, high-quality and distinctive output and services which inform, educate and entertain.

In particular, the World Service contributes to the BBC’s international news mission by seeking to address the global gap in the provision of trusted international news, by providing accurate, impartial and independent news and programming of the highest quality. It should aim to provide a distinctive service tailored to its audience’s need, and maximise reach of all services in their target markets, subject to value for money. In doing so, the World Service aims to provide journalism that contributes to accountability and good governance, to improve the welfare and economic development of citizens in developing countries.

1.2 Governance

The royal charter is the constitutional basis for the BBC, including the BBCWS. It sets out the BBC’s mission and public purposes amongst other governance and regulatory arrangements such as the composition of the BBC Board. The current royal charter started on 1 January 2017 and ends on 31 December 2027. One of the five public purposes outlined for the BBC in the current charter is:

To reflect the United Kingdom, its culture and values to the world: the BBC should provide high-quality news coverage to international audiences, firmly based on British values of accuracy, impartiality, and fairness. Its international services should put the United Kingdom in a world context, aiding understanding of the United Kingdom as a whole, including its nations and regions where appropriate. It should ensure that it produces output and services which will be enjoyed by people in the United Kingdom and globally.

The charter also stipulates that the BBC must be independent “in all matters concerning the fulfilment of its mission and the promotion of the public purposes, particularly as regards editorial and creative decisions, the times and manner in which its output and services are supplied, and in the management of its affairs”.

The framework agreement between the government and the BBC sits alongside the charter and provides further detail on some of the topics outlined in the charter, for example the BBC’s funding and regulatory duties. The agreement includes details on the provision of the BBCWS and requires the BBC to set its overall strategic direction and budget, and to assess its performance. The agreement also stipulates that, taking into account the budget and strategy, the BBC must agree with the foreign secretary:

  • objectives, priorities and targets for the World Service
  • the languages in which the World Service is to be provided
  • any changes in either of the above

The framework agreement requires that these details (budget, strategy, objectives) are included in a world service licence which must be set and published by the BBC. The current world service licence includes details of the objectives, priorities and targets of the BBCWS and a list of the services it provides.

The BBC must report on the World Service in the BBC annual report. In addition, the chair of the BBC board and the foreign secretary (or their nominated representatives) will meet at least annually to review the performance of the World Service against the objectives, priorities and targets as defined in the licence.

2. Impact of the BBC World Service

As outlined above, the BBCWS is primarily aimed at users outside the UK. It delivers news in over 40 languages, including English, via TV, radio and digital services and has been described by the former secretary-general of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, as “perhaps Britain’s greatest gift to the world this century”.

2.1 Audience and reach

The BBC has measured the impact and reach of the BBCWS in both its ‘Annual report 2021/22’, published in June 2022, and the ‘BBC World Service performance review: 2016–2020’,which it produced in October 2021.

Overall, the BBC has a global weekly reach of 492 million people, with the bulk of this figure being the international weekly audience for BBC News. BBCWS has a weekly reach of 365 million people. This figure includes TV, radio, online and social media in English and other languages, and is an increase on the previous year’s figure. The different mediums can be broken further:

  • BBC World Service total digital reach: 148 million
  • BBC World Service television weekly reach: 130 million
  • BBC World Service radio weekly reach: 159 million

The BBC has estimated that between 2016 and 2020 the total reach of BBCWS had grown by 42 percent, from 246 million people on average each week in March 2016 to 351 million people in March 2020. The BBC has also highlighted perceptions of its content, particularly that provided to global audiences, arguing:

[…] the BBC is the world’s most trusted and best-known international news broadcaster, with CNN its nearest competitor as consistently shown by independent research […] The World Service has retained its position as the most trusted international news brand as shown by surveys published as part of the World Service 5 year review.

2.2 Soft power

The ‘soft power’ role of the BBCWS has been mentioned by several commentators. The term ‘soft power’ was originally coined by the US political scientist Professor Joseph Nye in 1990, and can be defined as “the ability to affect others to obtain the outcomes one wants through attraction rather than coercion or payment”.

The BBC argues that “the provision of trusted, impartial information via the World Service is recognised as enhancing soft power—something regularly acknowledged by parliamentarians and influential figures in the creative industries”. It points to a range of research showing the importance of the BBCWS in this regard.  A 2020 Ipsos MORI survey found that awareness of BBCWS is strongly linked to a range of positive perceptions of the UK. The Soft Power 30 index of global soft power cites the BBCWS as a major institution important to the UK government’s use of soft power.

The foreign secretary has an ongoing role in BBCWS objectives and services. The government’s integrated review of security, defence, development and foreign policy of March 2021 listed the BBC as one of the UK’s “soft power strengths”. In February 2022, when asked about the BBCWS’s role in supporting UK international diplomatic objectives, the government  described it as “invaluable for our soft power and influence globally”. Examples of this can be seen in the March 2022 government announcement of emergency funding for the BBCWS in response to the war in Ukraine:

BBC World Service will receive an additional £4.1 million in emergency funding to support its Ukrainian and Russian language services in the region, and to help it increase trusted and independent content to counter disinformation about the war in Ukraine. BBC World Service channels—including TV, radio and digital—play an increasingly valuable role in challenging the Kremlin’s disinformation, but it is facing additional costs from operating within a military conflict and due to a crackdown on independent reporting in Russia.

In addition, during a recent debate about the protests in Iran, FCDO minister David Rutley noted that the BBCWS “is obviously going to be important. It has an independent editorial and operational approach, but we are actively supporting it by funding its work on disinformation and so on”.

This importance was emphasised in the July 2022 House of Lords Communications and Digital Committee report ‘Licence to change: BBC future funding’. The report noted:

The BBC continues to provide an essential international service which promotes UK democratic values and informs people across the world. It delivers this through a range of means, including entertainment. This is ever more important in an era of declining press freedom and rising authoritarianism. When responding to its independent review the government should commit to safeguarding the work of the BBC World Service, and if necessary enhancing it.

When responding to the results of its independent review the government should publish an assessment of the benefits that the BBC’s international output, including the World Service, provides to UK soft power and wider objectives in foreign policy, international trade and inward investment. This should set out how changes to the BBC’s funding might affect these benefits. The BBC should provide the government with scenarios and estimates to inform this work. The government should provide an interim update on this work by 1 December 2022.

The government’s response to the committee, published in October 2022, noted:

The government fully recognises the important role the BBC World Service plays in promoting UK values globally through its independent and impartial broadcasting. The World Service is integral to the delivery of two of the five public purposes set out in the BBC’s charter (1 and 5). The upcoming review of the licence fee funding model will be expected to work closely with the FCDO and ensure that the World Service is given proper consideration.

3. Future of the BBC World Service

3.1 Funding

In the past the BBCWS was funded by a parliamentary grant-in-aid, administered by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO).

The October 2010 spending review changed this arrangement, stating that from April 2014, responsibility for funding the BBCWS would transfer to the BBC. This would mean that the FCDO would cease paying regular grants to the World Service, and instead the service would be funded from the UK television licence fee.

Concerns about the change, and the potential impact it might have on the services provided, were raised by several commentators. In 2011, the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee published a report arguing that the decision to transfer funding responsibility to the BBC would have “major long-term ramifications for the future of the World Service”. They concluded that the change would not make the BBCWS’s funding more secure, stating:

[…] this decision could lead to long-term pressure on the World Service budget, with the risk of a gradual diversion of resources from the World Service to fund other BBC activities.

In its response to the Foreign Affairs Committee, the government noted:

The government believes that the transfer of funding to the licence fee will increase the BBC’s ability to increase scope for sensible efficiencies and economies, and avoid duplication across the whole of the BBC family. It will also help create a more sustainable future for the World Service. This will also benefit licence fee payers, who will continue to have access to the World Service.

However, the government also argued “that does not mean that we are closed to working with the World Service in specific areas”. In June 2011, the then foreign secretary, William Hague, announced that he had asked the FCDO to “look again at whether there were other options open to us to provide support” to the BBCWS.

In November 2015, the government announced that it would make £289mn available to the BBCWS from 2016/17 to 2019/20. This new funding was in addition to that received from the licence fee. In May 2016, the government announced its intention to ensure that the BBC protected the licence fee funding for the BBCWS at £254mn a year for the five years from 2017/18.

BBCWS funding is therefore made up of these two strands, with approximately 75% of this total coming from the licence fee.

In January 2022, the government announced that the BBC licence fee will be frozen until April 2024, following which it will rise in line with inflation until 31 March 2028. In correspondence with the BBC, the then culture secretary, Nadine Dorries, noted:

I would also like to recognise the vital role that the BBC World Service plays. Over the rest of the charter period the BBC should continue to make substantive investment from the licence fee into the World Service to ensure that it continues to effectively reflect the United Kingdom, its culture and values to the world in English and through its language services. As set out in the framework agreement the BBC should continue to agree objectives, priorities and targets for the World Service with the foreign secretary, as well as the languages in which the World Service is to be provided, and any changes to these matters. This includes the provision of new language services or where a language is no longer provided for at all.

In November 2022, the government confirmed the continuing involvement of the FCDO in funding the BBCWS, stating:

The government greatly values the work of the BBC World Service, as recognised in the integrated review.

The FCDO is providing the World Service with flat cash funding of £283 million over the three-year spending review period, equating to £94.4 million annually. This year, the FCDO will provide a further £1.44 million dedicated to countering disinformation emanating from the Kremlin with trusted and impartial content.

The government remains committed to the World Service, and its important role in delivering high quality, accurate and independent broadcasting worldwide.

3.2 Current funding challenges

In the introduction to the most recent BBC annual report, Director-General Tim Davie outlined the impact of the licence fee settlement announced in January 2022:

Of course, it is disappointing to face a two-year freeze on our licence fee income, meaning that we will have to absorb the considerable costs of inflation in this period. This presents us with significant challenges, especially given that the BBC’s income for UK services is already 30% lower than a decade ago in real terms.

However, we have financial stability in the UK for the rest of the current charter period. Alongside the potential to grow commercial revenues, this means the BBC can focus on the future and on delivering against our clear priorities. This is about much more than living within our financial settlement. It is about transforming the BBC into an organisation that can succeed despite the extraordinary pace and scale of market change, capable of building relevance to our audiences despite the fierce competition for time in an online world.

Interviewed by BBC Radio 4, he argued that the licence fee announcement would lead to a £285mn gap in funding for the BBC overall, and would affect frontline output.

The BBC annual report for 2021/22 included details of over £274mn of in-year efficiency savings achieved that year, taking total savings delivered since 2016/17 to £1,029mn. The report said it had achieved this through productivity efficiencies, production and operational efficiencies, restructuring and management of contracts.

On 29 September 2022, the BBC announced plans to “accelerate its digital offering and increase impact with audiences around the globe”. The changes would see seven additional language services moving to digital only, increasing the total to nearly half of all language services. The proposals would also entail the loss of around 382 jobs.

The BBC argued that “high inflation, soaring costs, and a cash-flat licence fee settlement have led to tough choices”, stating that the BBC’s international services need to make an annual saving of £28.5mn. It stressed that “no language services will close” and said the changes would model the success of other language services which had switched to digital and were “performing well with audiences”.

The BBC’s announcement led several commentators to express concern. Writing in the New Statesman, Henry Hill, deputy editor of ConservativeHome, argued that the BBCWS helps to justify paying the licence fee, commenting “I can get news and entertainment from any number of outlets, but only one payment so directly subsidises things that enhance our democracy and expand our international reach”. An editorial in the Observer argued that the cuts were “short-sighted”, and called on ministers to revisit the 2022 decision to freeze the licence fee and the 2010 decision to stop most FCDO funding for the BBCWS.

Professor Simon Potter, from the University of Bristol, highlighted the continuing importance of the role of radio as a key means to extend the reach of the BBCWS. He pointed to recent events in Ukraine, where concerns that Russia might target Ukraine’s internet infrastructure led the BBC to reactivate short-wave radio news services for listeners in both countries. Short-wave radio is, he notes “difficult for hostile regimes to block”. While he agreed that focusing on providing news online means that the BBCWS is putting resources where it can best promote UK soft power and international influence, he argued:

[…] abandoning radio entirely would be a mistake. As the Russian invasion of Ukraine has demonstrated, radio remains a crucial way to reach audiences who might find their access to trusted news via the internet suddenly cut off.

In October 2022, responding to a written parliamentary question on the subject, FCDO minister Andrew Mitchell noted:

The BBC recently announced plans to move certain language services to digital-only, whilst maintaining access to the full range of 42 language services, and providing assurance that the World Service will continue to serve audiences in need, ensuring continued access to vital news services.

The FCDO strongly supports the BBC’s role in bringing high-quality, impartial news to audiences around the world, including where internet restrictions are a tool of repression. We recognise that in the current fiscal context, the BBC, like other organisations, is facing difficult financial decisions.

The BBC is operationally and editorially independent from government, and it is for the BBC to comment on matters relating to staffing and service delivery.

3.3 Future BBC funding

Discussions about the current funding of the BBCWS, and the BBC more widely, feed into broader discussions concerning the future of the licence fee and the role of public service broadcasters more generally.

The issue had risen up the political agenda in recent years with debates about how the BBC should be funded and how broadcasters can compete in a competitive online media environment. Recent parliamentary committee inquiries in both the Lords and the Commons have also examined the issue.

On 28 April 2022, the government under Boris Johnson published a white paper on the future of broadcasting. The white paper included plans to carry out a review of the licence fee funding model ahead of the next charter period. It stated that more detailed plans would be announced in the coming months.

In answer to a parliamentary written question on 27 October 2022, the government argued it was necessary to look at the BBC’s funding model as a whole to ensure its long-term sustainability. The government said it would set out further details on its plans for the future of the licence fee in due course.

The House of Lords debated the future of public service broadcasting on 3 November 2022. A House of Lords Library briefing for the debate was published.

Responding to the debate for the government, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport minister Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay confirmed:

The government’s longer-term road map for reform of the BBC sees two forthcoming milestones as we prepare for the next review of the BBC’s royal charter: the ongoing mid-term review and the planned BBC funding model review […] The government are seeking to conclude the review swiftly and to report on its findings next year.

On the BBC funding model review he noted:

We must consider how best to fund the BBC over the long term so that it can continue to succeed. It is therefore right that we examine the future of the licence fee. The government will set out further detail on their plans in due course.

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Cover image by Fringer Cat on Unsplash.