Stephen Glover: Cut the World Service and it's Britain we harm

Media Studies: Is the government machine too rigid for anyone to admit that a sillydecision was made during last autumn's spending review?

Monday 18 April 2011 00:00 BST

We are all in favour of the BBC World Service but do we really care? I ask because there is little more than a whimper of national protest at the Coalition Government's plans to cut the World Service's budget by 16 per cent as part of its spending review. After a ritual nod of objection, people tend to concern themselves with much bigger cutbacks far closer to home. Just possibly things are changing. Last week, the all-party House of Commons foreign affairs committee said that planned cuts of £46m to an annual budget of £253m should be reversed. Richard Ottaway, the Tory MP and committee chairman, quoted the verdict of the former United Nations secretary-general, Kofi Annan, that the World Service was "perhaps Britain's greatest gift to the world". As things stand, this priceless but relatively inexpensive gift is losing five foreign language services, and the World Service's global audience is expected to decline by about 30 million listeners from 180 million.

You may ask: why should the World Service be spared the painful cuts experienced in almost every other area of government? The answer is that it should not be. Or, to be more precise, the cuts of £46m should be made up by the international aid budget, which is projected to soar by nearly 40 per cent to an amazing £9.4bn in 2015. A minute sliver of the aid budget, so small that it would hardly be noticed, could preserve the BBC World Service as it is. I can barely think of a more valuable form of aid. It informs and enlightens millions of people who are kept in the dark by their governments. Throughout the Middle East, and in many parts of Africa, it is listened to by those who are being lied to and even persecuted. The World Service, shorn as it is of any taint of propaganda on behalf of our Government, is also the best advertisement there could be for British truth-telling and fair play.

Even the most passionate advocate of international aid could hardly deny that some of it is wasted, either through inefficiency or corruption. Huge sums also go to countries that arguably do not need them. Britain contributes £90m a year though the European Union to Turkey, a middle-income country, and nearly £300m a year to India, which has a substantial space programme and a defence budget not much smaller than ours.

All I propose is that a minuscule fraction of the hugely expanding aid budget should be diverted to save the World Service. In a grown-up, joined-up government there would be no argument. Ministers would cuff themselves, and say "silly us". If you asked a thousand people, 999 of them would probably want the international aid budget to be used to safeguard this precious asset. Are ministers simply ignorant of its beneficial effects? Or is the government machine too rigid and hidebound for anyone to admit that a silly decision was quickly and thoughtlessly made during last autumn's spending review?

Putting the World Service budget in the hands of the BBC (until now it has been funded by the Foreign Office) is also a bad mistake. Whatever its director-general, Mark Thompson, may say, the BBC cannot be relied on to fund it generously in the future. The corporation is answerable to the licence-payer, and the licence-payer may justifiably have little or no interest in a service he or she seldom hears.

Thank God the foreign affairs committee is standing up for the World Service. But governments are pig-headedly stubborn. They don't like admitting they have got things wrong. It will need the muscle of powerful newspapers, as well as the constant attention of concerned MPs, if there is to be any chance of putting this right. Those who care about Britain's influence in the world, and want this country to be a force for good, must join the campaign.

Is Desmond holding out for too long?

Barclays Capital has prepared a short presentation on behalf of Richard Desmond to test the appetite for his four national newspapers, which was leaked to The Guardian last week. It suggests that underlying earnings of the Daily Express, Sunday Express, Daily Star and Daily Star Sunday will rise from £31.7m in 2010 to almost £60m in 2012.

How these flagging titles will achieve such an impressive feat while continuing to lose sales, and facing a challenging advertising market, is anyone's guess. You certainly can't accuse Barclays Capital of pessimism. Profits on this scale could imply a valuation of nearly £500m. I don't see anyone paying that amount, or close to it.

The Daily Mail group might well be interested in picking up the middle-market Express titles at the right price. News International, owner of The Sun, might want the red-top Star papers. Each group would be buying readers, though past mergers have shown that many disappear. Notwithstanding Barclays' bullish figures, Mr Desmond's difficulty is that with every passing month he has fewer of them to pass on. If he wants to sell these titles, he had better get on with it.

Murky affairs shine a light on 'The Sun'

Rebekah Brooks, chief executive officer of News International, reportedly may face a criminal investigation by Scotland Yard for telling a House of Commons committee in 2003 that Sun journalists had "paid for police information in the past". No doubt they did. The question is what prompted Mrs Brooks, then editor of The Sun, to make such a full and frank confession. She is very far from being a stupid person. Nor is she normally inclined to open her heart – very far from it.

Was it simply arrogance, even hubris? For many years News International had the Metropolitan Police and successive governments where it wanted them. It assumed they would do what they were expected to. Now the phone-hacking scandal threatens to destroy those cosy relationships. Mrs Brooks's remark illuminated a state of affairs which the police and many leading politicians have cheerfully accepted.

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