`Foolish' BBC accused of destroying World Service

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The Independent Online
THE BBC was accused of the piecemeal destruction of the World Service yesterday and was warned that it would face stiff opposition if it chose to implement reported plans to make cuts to several of its foreign language services.

According to leaked documents, the German and Czech services face closure while the Russian, Arabic and Hungarian transmissions will be downgraded. Mark Byford, the chief executive of the World Service, is drawing up a three-year plan for the network, to be announced next month.

John Tusa, a former mangaging director of the World Service, said he had seen the documents: "They represent hard and fast plans, and if you had seen them you would think the same. This gradual erosion is beginning to affect a considerable swath of its broadcasting services."

Baroness Williams of Crosby, Liberal Democrat spokeswoman on foreign affairs, said she intended to table questions in the House of Lords on the matter. "It would be devastatingly foolish if any cuts were implemented, and I do hope they are not confirmed. It seems to me that the World Service should not be cowed by the Treasury campaigning for cuts. [The World Service] provides a huge return for relatively little investment."

P D James, the novelist, Conservative peer and former BBC governor, said she had not seen the proposals but added that if plans were announced to cut the World Service, she would use her position in the Lords to initiate opposition.

"The World Service is of extreme importance. It provides truthful news and comment to the millions of listeners who rely on the BBC. It's particularly important to those who continue to tune in under difficult circumstances," she said.

Baroness James of Holland Park has been a vigorous opponent of potentially damaging changes to a network she believes "belongs to the people of the world". When John Birt, the BBC's director-general, announced a radical shake-up of the World Service's structure two-and-a-half years ago, she accused him of "extraordinary arrogance" in his failure to consult staff.

When cuts threatened, she acted as an important focus for opposition that also included the Booker-prize winning novelist Ben Okri, Terry Waite and John McCarthy, who said it eased their captivity in Beirut, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

The World Service has a global audience of about 140 million listeners, of which 35 million listen to its English- language service. Since the changes introduced by Mr Birt in 1996, the network has had to buy in its English-language news reports and entertainment programmes from BBC News and BBC Production divisions in west London. About 1,000 staff remain at its headquarters in Bush House where they broadcast in 43 languages for all parts of the world.

It is funded by an annual grant from the Foreign Office, which declined in real terms for six years until a new three-year agreement was reached last summer. The BBC pitched for an additional pounds 65m, but the Government was prepared to stump up only pounds 44m.

This pounds 21m "shortfall" has precipitated fears over possible cutbacks. A BBC spokeswoman said suggestions that the corporation was about to embark on a round of cost-cutting were "untrue".

However, she was unable to give any assurances that foreign-language services would remain untouched when a three-year plan was unveiled next month. "No decisions have been taken yet," she said.

Mr Byford told BBC staff yesterday that pounds 30m of the extra money would be ploughed into World Service programmes over the next three years. The remaining pounds 14m will be spent on new transmitters.