Call for u-turn on BBC funding cut

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Indy Politics

Senior MPs today lined up to call for the Government to reverse its decision to slash the BBC World Service's funding.

Richard Ottaway, Conservative chairman of the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, described the 16% cut as "disproportionate".

Labour former defence secretary Bob Ainsworth warned the World Service risked being "completely eclipsed" by competing sources of information, reducing the UK's influence.

Opening a Commons debate on the cuts, Mr Ottaway said: "It is the view of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee that the World Service is a key component of British soft power."

The committee issued a report last month calling on the Government to back down over the cuts.

Mr Ottaway told MPs: "We recognise the economic constraints and the background to this report, but we believe it is a mistake to implement the proposed heavy cuts to its budget."

He said the dramatic events of the Arab Spring showed the importance of the World Service.

"In the fog of war and media spin people everywhere trust the World Service to be fair, honest, courageous and decent and so, by association, Britain is endowed with these same qualities.

"This is soft diplomacy and it is valuable."

Mr Ainsworth, a member of the committee, said: "Others are investing in this area and at the time of the Arab Spring we are seeing al Jazeera becoming increasingly powerful in terms of the influence it brings to bear.

"We are in great danger of being completely eclipsed as far as our influence is concerned."

Mr Ottaway said: "The World Service does represent one of the best ways of communicating to this changing world."

A number of other prominent MPs have signed Mr Ottaway's motion for the debate including Tories Andrew Tyrie, chairman of the Treasury Select Committee, and John Whittingdale, who chairs the Culture, Media and Sport Committee.

The motion calls on the Government to review its decision.

The World Service has always been funded by the Foreign Office, but from 2014 responsibility will transfer to the BBC from licence fee funds.

Mr Ottaway said in the intervening four years funding was being reduced from £241 million to £212 million, "a 16% real term cut".

The Foreign Office budget, excluding cuts to the World Service and British Council, was facing a 10% reduction, he said.

"In my judgment and the opinion of the committee a 16% cut in the World Service budget compared with 10% in the Foreign Office budget is disproportionate."

Mr Ottaway said the committee expressed concerns about cuts to Mandarin, Hindi and Arabic services.

"It is doubtful whether their reduced output is in the nation's interest," he said.

He also warned about greater reliance on listeners tuning in online because "internet services can be turned off at any time by totalitarian regimes" as happened in Egypt during the uprising.

Mr Ottaway said the cut to Arabic services, made before the popular uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East, caused the greatest concern.

He said: "What is needed is a full reversal of the proposed cuts."

Mr Ottaway said in an "extremely helpful development" the Department for International Development was making a grant to the World Service Trust and creating a "more strategic" relationship between the institutions.

He said if the Government accepted the MPs' call to re-examine the decision "it would be a mistake to undertake a review and then take no further action".