Extra £2.2m for BBC World Service

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The Independent Online

The Government bowed to pressure over cuts to the BBC World Service today by providing an extra £2.2 million of funding.

Foreign Secretary William Hague announced that the money was being allocated to shore up the corporation's Arabic Service.

In a written statement to MPs, he said: "It is right that we should look at ways in which we can assist the BBC Arabic Service to continue their valuable work in the region.

"So I have agreed that we will provide additional funding of £2.2 million per annum to enable the World Service to maintain the current level of investment in the BBC Arabic Service."

The move comes after MPs from across the parties raised concerns about the 16% cut imposed on the World Service's £270 million budget as part of last year's Comprehensive Spending Review.

The Tory chairman of the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, Richard Ottaway, branded the reduction a "false economy", insisting the organisation was key to Britain's global standing.

Earlier this month, the new chairman of the BBC Trust, Lord Patten, indicated that he hoped to persuade the coalition to help protect the "core" Arabic Service.

Today, Mr Hague said he had reconsidered in light of developments in the Arab Spring, and after a debate in Parliament last month.

"We recognise that the world has changed since the settlement was announced in October last year - indeed since the World Service announced the subsequent changes to services, including some closures, on January 26," he said.

"In addition, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is discussing providing funding from the Arab Partnership Initiative for specific projects proposed by the BBC Arabic Service or World Service Trust.

"Discussions are continuing about a number of projects which are designed to support the development of the media and wider civic society in the Middle East and North Africa region which, taken together, may mean an additional investment of up to £1.65 million over the next two years."

Mr Hague also highlighted discussions over whether money from the Department for International Development (DfID) could be used to fund World Service activities.

The BBC Trust welcomed the announcement, and said it was seeking to reduce the effect of shrinking budgets.

"Separately, the Trust has approved the reallocation of £9 million of existing World Service funding to editorial investment over three years to mitigate the impact of recent funding cuts, following lower-than-expected restructuring costs and pension contributions," it said in a statement.

"Together, this additional funding will help provide support to some priority frontline services, including sustaining the Hindi short wave service, the Somali service and services for the Arab world.

"It will also allow a small amount of investment in new activities, in particular on new platforms and in emerging markets."

Embarrassingly, the Foreign Office's own website initially headlined the announcement: "Massive U-turn on BBC World Service funding."

The headline was later changed to: "BBC World Service Funding Review."

A spokeswoman for the department said the headline did not reflect the views of the Government, and disciplinary action was being taken against the staff member involved.

The Foreign Office spokeswoman said: "A web article with an incorrect and inappropriate title was up on the FCO website for 10 minutes this morning.

"That title absolutely did not represent the views of the FCO. This error has now been corrected and disciplinary procedures have been launched."

Lord Patten said: "As Aung San Suu Kyi said only this week, the World Service is a lifeline for those hungry for unbiased news and information about their country and the wider world.

"It is also an export for British values of fairness, accuracy and impartiality.

"I am delighted that we have been able to work with the Foreign Secretary to direct some more funding to these services. The additional money will help protect BBC services in the areas where they are most valued and needed.

"However, it does not mean that we will be able to restore all of what has been lost, and there will still need to be some cuts to the World Service as we have known it.

"We are determined that, when we take full responsibility for funding of the World Service after 2014, it will have the priority it deserves."

Shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander said: "As I said to William Hague when these cuts were announced, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office should not be exempt from the need to reduce the deficit, but in making cuts to a relatively small budget that has a global impact, there is a need for particular care and concern.

"That carelessness regarding the Arabic and Hindi services has now been partially addressed and I welcome that belated climbdown.

"Instead of disciplining staff, ministers should be more disciplined in their thinking".