Ian Burrell: Britain needs to understand what an incomparable asset it has in the BBC World Service, argues its outgoing head

The Media Column: Peter Horrocks knows the future of the World Service – now funded from the licence fee and not the Foreign Office coffers – depends on British public sympathy

Ian Burrell
Monday 10 November 2014 01:38 GMT
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When Peter Horrocks, the soon-to-depart head of the World Service, visited Hyderabad in India a few years ago, he was serenaded by a brass band and showered with petals by an adoring crowd holding “Welcome Mr Peter” banners.

It’s a shame that not enough people back in the UK realise the value this 82-year-old institution has for Britons travelling overseas, whether they’re doing business or seeing the sights.

Talking with Horrocks at the end of his 33-year career at the BBC – he steps down at the end of this year – he has a clear idea of how this could change. The BBC, he says, needs to rethink the way it presents international news to audiences in the UK.

He wants the BBC to steer away from the island mentality of much of the UK media. “Let’s make the BBC’s international news utterly distinctive – different from what newspapers and other broadcast competitors in the UK are doing, which is largely seeing the world through UK eyes,” he says. “The BBC can give people an understanding of how the world sees the world.”

What Horrocks would like to see is a new hybrid visual offering for the UK that fuses the specialist insights of the local journalists who produce BBC news in 28 languages for the World Service group with the analysis of famous correspondents already familiar to British audiences. “Is there a way of having the best of BBC News and the World Service that blends the Jeremy Bowens and John Simpsons with the best of our language service reporters, so you are getting both an experienced expat eye on a story and a cultural sensitivity and depth of understanding?” he wonders. There are various options for hosting such a channel on the multi-platform BBC.

Few BBC licence-fee payers would realise they help to employ the International Broadcasting Personality of the Year, Egypt’s Shaimaa Khalil. It would be nice to see her in the UK.

This outward-looking approach would help Britain culturally and economically, as a nation with unrivalled global connections, says Horrocks. We need to stop regarding as a problem the child who arrives in school with a foreign mother tongue and embrace our advantages in understanding how the world thinks. Such a distinctive BBC stance would help its case for future public funding, he says.

As he leaves the BBC, Horrocks knows the future of the World Service – now funded from the licence fee and not the Foreign Office coffers – depends on British public sympathy. But it’s hard for people to evaluate something they rarely consume themselves.

The BBC World News channel, the television equivalent of the World Service, is currently available only overseas. The World Service itself is available on DAB radio but I suspect that many people still imagine it as a crackly signal picked up on a shortwave radio in remote villages in the developing world.

This view is outdated. In his five years in charge, Horrocks – a former editor of Newsnight and Panorama – has adapted the World Service for an audience that increasingly listens on mobile phones. He has tweaked the editorial tone to reflect the fact that populations in Africa and Asia are younger than those in Europe. And he has had to do this with less money, a hardship that required him to make 500 job cuts early in his tenure.

These cuts were received “with bafflement” outside Britain, when every regime from Turkey to Qatar and Russia to China wants its say in the international news market. The Chinese, who are pouring a fortune into their CCTV media network, are constantly seeking to understand how Britain came to lead the way in global communications.

Chinese ambition is damaging the BBC, which depends on local providers to carry 40 per cent of its content, for free or for a payment to the BBC. “What the Chinese do is to pay local radio and TV stations to take their content,” says Horrocks. “It’s a direct threat to our success.”

The World Service’s output in Mandarin is blocked in China. BBC World News TV is routinely censored by Chinese officials. Iran plays “a cat-and-mouse technology game” in jamming the satellite signal of the BBC’s Persian broadcasts. Nonetheless, the BBC’s global reach (currently 256 million across all platforms) continues to grow towards Director-General Tony Hall’s target of 500 million by the broadcaster’s centenary in 2022, and Horrocks expects it to soon overtake CNN as “indisputably the No 1 global news provider”.

It already beats CNN – which he derides for being “wildly over the top” on some stories – in global breaking news. And it delivers twice the audience of Voice of America, with half the budget provided by the US Congress for that network.

This is a consequence of eight decades of earning trust. Before he leaves, Horrocks will go to Afghanistan, where the BBC has been broadcasting for 33 years (in Pashto and Dari), and celebrate the 20th anniversary of an Afghan version of The Archers. British troops may have departed Afghanistan but the World Service plans to “reinforce” its operation. It could benefit audiences in Britain as much as in Kabul.

“The motto of the BBC is ‘Nation shall speak peace unto nation’,” says Horrocks. “In a world where there is terrorism, health threats and climate-change threats, an organisation dedicated to understanding the world better and to mutual tolerance is an incomparable asset.”

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