Earlier this week I received one of those unexpected requests that make you feel useful – if, like me, you have acquired some exotic and under-exploited expertise along the way. It was from one of the foreign-language sections of the BBC World Service and the producer was looking for a comment on the coming elections in the Central Asian state of Kyrgyzstan.
This time, though, the request prompted a twinge of guilt. For, while harbouring warm, fuzzy, national-treasure feelings about the BBC World Service – who doesn't? – I also had to admit to doubts about it. For a former World Service employee, this comes about as close to treachery as you can get.
The doubts had been crystallised by the recent leak of candidates for the Government's latest quango cull. There, among the eminently dispensable committees and commissions, was the BBC World Service. Which, in one way, seemed strange. To most people the World Service does not belong to the quango species. Yet it does have the sort of semi-detached status that defines these quasi-governmental organisations.
It is paid for by a grant from the Foreign Office, which also decides what languages it should broadcast in (currently 31), while the actual contents of those broadcasts is the responsibility of the BBC. Funded, but not completely controlled, by the Government, it was bound to be vulnerable at a time when the Foreign Office faces hefty cuts.
Cost is one reason for asking questions about the World Service – even if, at a projected £268m this year, it hardly burns a huge hole in the Foreign Office's pocket. But cost is not the only, or even the main, reason why the World Service should be called upon to justify its continued existence. For years, it has lived a charmed existence, regarded universally, but especially by the great and the good, as a jewel in the national crown.
But warm feelings and national pride are not, in themselves, enough. And the fundamental question now cries out to be asked: what precisely, in this global, multimedia age, is the BBC World Service for? Well, it wants to be the best international broadcaster anywhere. It wants to place its skills and its international knowledge at the service of the whole complex of modern media. The problem is that it has so far done this in an inconsistent and piecemeal manner. Not only this, but other international broadcasters have been catching up.
Like it or not, the BBC World Service was a post-colonial and a Cold War tool. It brought information and entertainment to countries that were either linked to Britain culturally or essentially closed to the world outside. But the world has changed. The colonies are considerably more post-colonial than they were, while the number of hermetically sealed nations is a fraction of what it was. There are many places in which media freedom may leave something to be desired, but it is far harder now than it used to be for regimes to seal their people off.
Last year the World Service lost more than 20 million shortwave listeners, mostly in Bangladesh, India and Nigeria, which is good news, because it shows how these countries are joining the modern world. While accepting, reluctantly, that shortwave is probably the past, however, the World Service seems in a quandary about the future.
It has made efforts to look beyond shortwave. In some countries it has negotiated agreements with local broadcasters to carry BBC programming on FM. There are websites for the individual language services on the internet, and there are new satellite television services in Arabic and Persian – set up, it should be recalled, at the behest of the Foreign Office, opening them to accusations of being mouthpieces of the British government.
Foreign language radio, however, is in decline. Language services continue to close. One of the growth areas, paradoxically, is the US, where the internet, local FM deals and multi-channel cable and satellite possibilities abound. But here, as increasingly elsewhere, the World Service competes not just with other international broadcasters, but – foolishly, and counterproductively – with itself.
The expansion of the mainstream BBC into satellite, internet, mobile phone applications and the rest has been prodigious, and such services are by their very nature global. Meanwhile the World Service – until recently off limits – comes to domestic listeners digitally. There is also BBC World, a clumsy hybrid TV channel that trades on the name and the expertise, but is commercial, and nothing whatever to do with the scrupulously non-commercial World Service, or the Arabic and Persian television services that come under its auspices.
You don't have to track the hierarchies of these various branches for long to conclude that all sorts of people are doing all sorts of different things and that some poor person at the top is trying to cobble together a coherent managerial and editorial structure after the fact. One result is something called BBC global news, which seems to relate, though I am not entirely clear how, to news coverage across the BBC as a whole.
This is madness. It is a recipe for administrative and editorial chaos. It is extravagant, and it should have ended long ago. The most elegant solution would be for the World Service to be shorn of its government connection and incorporated into the mainstream BBC – which it will be, physically, when it moves to Broadcasting House in the coming months. The Corporation should then be split into domestic and international arms, sharing journalists and programming where possible – which means far more than at present. It would have to decide whether to retain any foreign language broadcasting.
Yes, this would be the death warrant of the BBC World Service as we have known it. But it is the only way that what remains of its declining capital can be salvaged. The reputation of the BBC, the global currency of the English language, the London time zone and the UK's long tradition as a place of refuge are all advantages the BBC holds over the international media competition. If nation is to speak peace unto nation from London in the future, the World Service will have to accept that its glory days of specialness are over and the Corporation as a whole will have to embrace a global role.