The World Service: A global ambition

Mark Byford, head of the World Service, is pressing for more money from the Government. Never has the service been so important, he tells Louise Jury

Wednesday 04 December 2013 03:47
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Media executives often have plaudits on their walls, the awards garnered in the years of success. Mark Byford, the head of the BBC World Service, has tributes from global leaders. The United Nations' secretary general, Kofi Annan, is quoted on the World Service's "very special importance"; Hamed Karzai, head of the interim government in Afghanistan, writes of its "credibility"; and Mikhail Gorbachev says it is a "vital" source of reliable information.

Greg Dyke may be the director general of the BBC, but when you sit in Mark Byford's office in the rather grand surroundings of Bush House, central London, you get the sense that he is the one with the genuine empire.

This father of five is a genial emperor. A lifelong BBC staffer, who was in the frame for the DG's job last time, Byford, 44, was appointed head of the service in 1998 by the former DG, John Birt, despite having no foreign experience. He has become a passionate advocate of a service that depends on government support – not the licence fee – for its £201m-a-year budget.

It is a service that appears to have taken on new life in the past year; its services to Afghanistan, in particular, have been expanded since the attacks of 11 September, to which the World Service gave an unprecedented 46 hours of continuous coverage. And it has been winning awards. The latest came last week, from the One World Broadcasting Trust, for a unique contribution in global affairs.

A decade or so ago, when broadcasting was being deregulated and 24-hour TV news was emerging, it was debated whether radio would have a role. Yet the World Service is now pulling in some of its highest audiences, estimated at 150 million. "The importance of the World Service is greater than it has ever been," Byford says. The real question is to what level we should fund it. If we stand still, we decline."

There is massive competition. The growing availability of television in India, for instance, contributed to a loss of 12 million World Service listeners there last year. The poor quality of shortwave frequencies has encouraged Byford to promote FM instead in developed areas, but the decision to switch off four shortwave signals in Australia and New Zealand and all shortwave transmissions to North America prompted howls of protest from those with poor FM reception.

He believes that radio will remain crucial because it is easy and cheap. But it will not operate alone. "The key for the BBC is to think hard about television, radio and the internet as having a tri-media impact," he says.

The money for the World Service is ring-fenced, but the Foreign Office has recently given permission for it to merge with BBC World, the commercial television service funded by advertising and subscription, to form a "single integrated international news and information division". It will work in partnership with BBC News.

The move may alarm commercial TV rivals already concerned about whether fair-trading rules adequately regulate the BBC's mix of public service and commercial activities. But Byford, who becomes the director of World Service and Global News under the agreement, promises they will be careful to avoid cross-subsidy between the services. "We shouldn't all have to operate separately and never talk to each other. That's not how the audiences use us." He says his World Service experts should be contributing to coverage elsewhere in the BBC.

But Byford is careful to explain the limits of what he thinks they should be doing. "We're not in the madhouse of saying we want massive amounts of money," he says. He has clear plans for specific additions to the service. He wants a new programme on development issues for Africa and a business programme for East Asia. He also wants to maintain the expanded services to Afghanistan and Southern Asia, which cost £5m last year, against the £3m extra the Government gave to provide them. With the Treasury close to agreeing the next spending round, he is hoping for a 3.6 per cent increase.

"In the world after 11 September, what the World Service can do for Britain is enormous for what is a very small amount of money in government terms." He says that it is important for our multicultural country to take a lead role in the bonding of communities.

"People say the most powerful job is the director general's, and the best job is head of the World Service," he adds. "You get up in the morning and think you're doing real good for the world." If Byford were a Miss World contestant, you wouldn't believe him. Sitting in his office, you just might.

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