World Service under threat

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THE BBC is considering big cuts at the World Service, including closing the German and Czech services and downgrading Russian, Arabic and Hungarian transmissions.

The former managing director of the service, John Tusa, who has seen the plans, denounced the BBC yesterday for "an extraordinary and dismal volte-face, an institutional capitulation".

He added: "These plans amount to a major retreat on all fronts. There has never been a series of voluntary cuts in World Service language services. The World Service is doing the Treasury's job for it."

Referring to the Czech, Russian and Hungarian services, he said: "Just as the people of these countries are working out an identity as part of Europe, to reduce services really is running up the editorial white flag."

Details of the BBC's plans are set out in a document on how best to present the proposals publicly, which were leaked to a Sunday newspaper. Draft letters signalling the closure of the German and Czech services have also been seen within the BBC.

But last night a BBC spokeswoman denied that any decisions had been finalised. She said: "The picture painted by The Observer is inaccurate, misinformed and misleading.

"The World Service is in discussions with the Foreign Office about its three-year plan, which follows the spending review announcement last July giving the World Service an extra pounds 30m of operating expenditure over three years.

"The plan's main aim will be to focus on investing in key developments utilising the settlement in the most effective manner in order to maintain the World Service's position as the world's leading international broadcaster. We expect to be able to make an announcement shortly."

However, BBC sources added that despite the pounds 30m boost for programmes last year, a re-evaluation of the World Service's role was taking place and proposals were being drawn up by the service's chief executive, Mark Byford, and colleagues.

Last year's grant to the World Service from the Foreign Office was pounds 156.8m. For the coming year the World Service asked for a pounds 65m increase and received pounds 44m, of which pounds 30m is for programmes.

Any decision to downgrade the Arabic service will cause deep concern given the instability in the Middle East, particularly in Iraq.

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