Leading Article: Nation shall speak cheaply unto nation

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The Independent Online
It is becoming traditional at this time of year to praise the quality of the BBC's renowned World Service and then to deplore the spending cuts imposed on that venerable organisation by a parsimonious Foreign Office This year sees a glum new set of figures, according to which the planned Foreign Office grant of just over pounds 169m will be pared by about pounds 5.4m.

The Foreign Office in its own annual report says that World Service radio gains an audience of 130 million regular listeners and "enhances Britain's standing abroad and forms among listeners a better understanding of the UK". The National Audit Office, for its part, recently praised improvements in efficiency in a broadly favourable report on the World Service.

So far, this is a familiar story of beleaguered broadcasters, philistine government, bloated Foreign Office mandarins spending millions on "smoked salmon and champagne" while symbol of national glory declines, and so on.

This picture, however, is a simplification of real and important developments within the BBC. Yes, there are reductions on the way in the BBC's global coverage. Several prestigious foreign offices are due to close next year, diminishing an already rather threadbare and cheaply funded network of worldwide radio contributors, many of whom are remunerated on terms that are far from generous. Yet these particular cuts have little to do with the Foreign Office. They result from the allocation of resources within the whole of the BBC, where there is still a wasteful duplication of effort between the World Service, the corporation's own national newsgathering service, and the burgeoning regional news operations.

Simultaneously, staff - still recovering from the necessary rigours of the drive for efficiency - report instances of junketing by managers and incongruously expensive behaviour on the part of ancillary and planning staff. Some of these stories may be unfair or apocryphal, but it would aid the BBC's case if they did not persistently combine to generate hostile newspaper headlines.

Most important, however, the future of the World Service raises questions that go to the heart of the BBC's structural dilemma. Can it continue to maintain an autonomous editorial staff and separate premises? If they should merge, as logic might dictate, what are the implications for funding? Merging the World Service with the BBC's main news and current affairs department means mixing money from the licence fee with funds direct from the taxpayer. And since World Service TV accepts advertising abroad, this mix is further leavened by commercial revenue. There has been no substantial public discussion of the implications for public accountability of this mix.

These are all matters to which the BBC must address itself if it wants to maintain a credible global radio and television presence. Blaming the Foreign Office will no longer do.

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