published in Press Gazette, London,
October 22, 1999)
TO SAVE THE WORLD
the government should offer grant-in-aid funding to BBC World
to boast that it punches above its weight, diplomatically, politically
and now, once again, economically. Ever since WW2, it has also punched
above its weight as an international broadcaster. The two success
stories are connected.
with its modest population and geographical size, can attribute
much of its international role to the status afforded it by the
BBC, not least BBC
World Service radio, currently with a global audience of 143
million. Increasingly, over the past eight years, that status has
been reinforced by its new kid on the block, BBC
World News television, originally launched in 1991 as BBC World
Service Television News.
Just as the Gulf
War made CNN's reputation,
the war in Kosovo made BBC World's. This has been further enhanced
by its impressive coverage of the tragic events of East Timor.
Despite its financial
constraints, having originally been set up on a shoestring, BBC
World News has fought its way up to become a First Division player,
highly regarded for the depth of its coverage, as well as its speed
and breadth, and became a cause of much anxiety at CNN's Atlanta
headquarters. It is no coincidence that since BBC World's launch,
CNNI has poached the BBC's head of Newsgathering, Chris Cramer,
and a senior BBC World editor, Tim Lister.
BBC World Newsis
a true oddity within the BBC: it is the only BBC TV channel to carry
commercial advertising. Not surprisingly, there were anxieties in
the BBC about the corporation going so deeply into the commercial
market with its news and current affairs output, a concern exacerbated
by the fact that news channels are notoriously bad at turning a
profit. This hasn't been helped by the news that BBC World lost
£15.6m last year, causing a projected loss of around 50 jobs.
Such losses should
be seen in context: CNN admits it took 12 years to go into profit
with its domestic service. Its off-spring, CNN International, riding
in on the back of the domestic service, says it went into the black
in just five years, but broadcasting insiders are immensely sceptical
that this is so. BSkyB, another major player, in Europe at least,
still doesn't earn a profit, 10 years after being launched. Nor
does it really expect to. As a Sky News spokesman put it: "The
news is a key strategic asset within Sky, as it adds a lot kudos
and authority. We see it as a public service first and foremost."
in her time as Prime Minister, was adamant that no government money
should go into the setting up of an international TV channel by
the BBC. It had to be commercial, or not at all. For many people
inside government and the BBC, this was the final word on the matter.
But it shouldn't be.
Times have changed
and the government should think again about making a modest grant-in-aid
investment - say about $50m, the cost or a warplane or two - in
BBC World. The money would be ringfenced for World and offered on
exactly the same terms as the grant-in-aid for World Service Radio.
of grant-in-aid is that it requires governments of whatever persuasion
to give BBC World Service total editorial independence. The independence
of BBC World would be further reinforced by taking away the commercial
pressures that can arise under the present funding arrangements.
At least some
of the grant-in-aid could come from the huge sums currently spent
on the government propaganda arms, the Central Office of Information
and British Satellite News. Details of the COI and BSN budgets are
hard to come by.
pounds would, according to my calculations, not just avoid the programme
cutbacks due to be phased in from next Christmas, but would allow
World to regionalise its output, making it more attractive to viewers
in the different parts of the globe. At the same time, the BBC should
undo the ill-judged decision by John Birt in 1996 to hive off responsibility
for BBC World from World Service. By all means, leave bulletin production
with BBC News, but editorially the channel rightly belongs under
the World Service umbrella as the programme commissioner. World
Service would then, in effect, be able to give BBC World free of
charge, to the corporation's commercial arm, BBC Worldwide.
would continue to satellite the channel around the globe, and would
recover its costs through cable sales and advertising. The advertising
would be confined to the gaps between programmes. Those irritating
advertising slots within news bulletins would go.
Neither ITN (anxious
to get into the global market) nor BSkyB is likely to care much
for my proposal, raising the "fair trading" canard. But
then they would object, wouldn't they. But with the best will in
the world, neither BSkyB nor ITN can match the BBC for its unique
network of more than 250 overseas correspondents and reporters and
the level of accuracy and insight such a network brings.
Even Lady Thatcher
spotted this benefit. She did not much care for World Service's
irritatingly-dogged independence, of course, but she did very much
enjoy the warm glow that the BBC's status brought her as she hand-bagged
her way across the international scene. She was thus able to distance
World Service, in her own mind, from the rest of the loathed BBC,
pumping extra money into its operations. It is a shame she never
felt the same for the fledgling BBC World Television.
The joy for the
United Kingdom and its political masters is that BBC World Service
and BBC World are a constant reminder abroad that Britain is still
a political, military, economic and cultural force to be reckoned
with, despite its relatively modest population and geographical
size -- all this simply by giving the BBC the freedom to wave the
flag for journalistic integrity and democratic ideals.
True, there are
no votes to be garnered - no elections to won or lost -- in funding
the BBC's global achievements and ambitions, but as every Prime
Minister, Foreign Secretary and Chancellor of the Exchequer has
discovered, there is much reflected glory and pride to be had as
a result of the BBC's status and influence abroad.
would protect BBC World against becoming just another channel on
the increasingly-crowded global broadcasting scene. This would avoid
a situation that effectively left the field open to CNN and its
narrow, entirely-American perspective of world events. Surely this
is not what Britain, Tony Blair - or indeed any British Prime Minister
- would want.
was a senior editor with BBC World Service, BBC World Television
and BBC Arabic Television.