Leading Article: Freedom would save the World Service

Related Topics
The BBC World Service should be hived off. That is a recommendation likely to be read askance by those who were persuaded by John Tusa's typically robust defence on these pages recently of a broadcasting service he passionately loves, and which, he claims, has 140 million listeners around the globe. Yet it is a suggestion, we believe, that would save the essential and precious qualities of the World Service, while simultaneously giving John Birt, the BBC's director general, all that he would wish in his struggle to streamline the corporation and its finances.

We are not talking about auctioning shares in BBC World Service plc (although that might allow the service's many admirers to put their money where their mouths are). Instead, the proposition is that the BBC World Service be established as an independent corporation, free to contract with the BBC and anyone else to supply it with world news. A BBC World Service Act could make crystal-clear its freedom from political interference - unlike the mainstream BBC.

The ambiguous relationship that persists between the BBC governors, its politically appointed chairman and the government of the day remains one of the most worrying aspects of this occasionally maddening and perennially fascinating British institution. The World Service would be healthier outside. There is no reason to prevent it continuing to use the BBC tag. It would be easy to organise a transfer of the assets of the service to a board of governors. John Tusa might even be its chairman, provided he brings in some top-flight personnel and finance managers.

The BBC World Service actually has no organic links with the BBC's production centres in television or radio - which is the gist of Mr Tusa's case. It is a different animal altogether from the BBC's Worldwide Television. It is not even statutorily a part of the BBC. It is a non-departmental public body. Its finances are separate: the vast bulk of its income comes from the Foreign Office grant. Its journalistic culture is palpably different, as anyone who has been to Bush House to taste that marvellous polyglot atmosphere can testify. Its highly prized independence rests on the faith of its listeners that they are being treated as adults capable of hearing truthful accounts. That quality does not need John Birt, Sir Christopher Bland or proximity to Broadcasting House; it does need a positive sense of the World Service's purpose and virtues which would, we believe, be better guaranteed by its standing outside.

The official line from Bush House is that quality of news coverage would suffer if the World Service could no longer call upon the (domestic) BBC's foreign staff. But what is to stop an independent BBC World Service contracting with the BBC to buy in reports and feeds as needed - would not that fit very well with the contract culture introduced by John Birt?

Indeed hiving off the World Service ought to make sense to the Birtians. The director general of the BBC attracts extraordinary criticism - all the more extraordinary in that his critics often fail to identify the specific failings in output for which he is allegedly responsible.

The BBC's annual report, quite rightly, blows the corporate trumpet over some recent programming successes, notably in popular television, though it is rather puzzling to see Mr Birt somehow claiming proprietary rights over Ms Jennifer Ehle's cleavage.

But Mr Birt does have one signal failing, and it is an intellectual one: he has never convincingly argued in public why his admirable project of instilling cost-consciousness and direction into the loose baggy monster that is the BBC requires the organisation's existing boundaries to be maintained. This is not to rehearse tired arguments about Radio One, though anyone who regularly listens to the immensely entertaining but immensely self-interested Chris Evans will ask themselves what scintilla of public interest there is in any of this, bar the traffic reports and time checks. Any clear-eyed look at the extent of the BBC would conclude that local radio, for example, as well as the World Service, would be better off outside the broadcasting empire.

Mr Birt works by formulae. Chief among them is the idea of separating production from commissioning, as a way of better displaying costs. Thus the World Service is set to become a purchaser of programmes the bulk of which are to be provided by News and Current Affairs. But the alternative is to give the World Service autonomy. It is already a "cost centre" - runs its own budgets. Let it decide, within the limits of its revenue- raising capacity, where and what programmes and reports it wants, and where it wants to buy them. If it wants to use the BBC's Moscow bureau, fine; if it wants to use a feed from the Americans or Deutsche Welle, why not?

Tusa romance and Birt logic come together. Free the World Service. That of course solves none of its pressing operational questions, the main one being whether it can secure revenue additional to its Foreign Office grant, allowing it to expand, to introduce its style and qualities to new audiences, to new parts of the world. There is no point in pussy-footing. The issue is whether the service can and should take advertising, without corrupting its peculiar and peculiarly special culture of news and commentary on the affairs of the world. Resolving that issue - and the ever-present question of the World Service's independence from the government of the day - are not going to be made harder by its separation from the BBC. They may actually be made easier.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Home Care / Support Workers

£7 - £10 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This care provider is looking for Home ...

Recruitment Genius: Web Team Leader

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the UK's leading web des...

Recruitment Genius: Client Manager

£27000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A growing, successful, friendly...

Recruitment Genius: Property Negotiator - OTE £20,000+

£16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This family owned, independent ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Separate lives: Boston’s streets illustrate the divide between the town’s communities  

Migrants have far more to offer than hard work and wealth creation, yet too many exist in isolation from the rest of society

Emily Dugan
Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird has sold 40 million copies  

Go Set a Watchman: Harper Lee’s new novel is more than just a literary event

Joseph Charlton
Greece says 'No': A night of huge celebrations in Athens as voters decisively back Tsipras and his anti-austerity stance in historic referendum

Greece referendum

Greeks say 'No' to austerity and plunge Europe into crisis
Ten years after the 7/7 terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?

7/7 bombings anniversary

Ten years after the terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?
Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has created

Versace haute couture review

Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has ever created
No hope and no jobs, so Gaza's young risk their lives, climb the fence and run for it

No hope and no jobs in Gaza

So the young risk their lives and run for it
Fashion apps: Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers

Fashion apps

Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers
The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
Compton Cricket Club

Compton Cricket Club

Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

It helps a winner keep on winning
Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

Is this the future of flying?

Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

Isis are barbarians

but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

Call of the wild

How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate