Copyright Ian D. Richardson Email:

(First published in Press Gazette, London, October 22, 1999)

Why the government should offer grant-in-aid funding to BBC World

BBC World graphic

by Ian Richardson

Britain likes to boast that it punches above its weight, diplomatically, politically and now, once again, economically. Ever since WW2, it has also punched above its weight as an international broadcaster. The two success stories are connected.

Post-Empire Britain, with its modest population and geographical size, can attribute much of its international role to the status afforded it by the BBC, not least BBC World Service radio, currently with a global audience of 143 million. Increasingly, over the past eight years, that status has been reinforced by its new kid on the block, BBC World News television, originally launched in 1991 as BBC World Service Television News.

Just as the Gulf War made CNN's reputation, the war in Kosovo made BBC World's. This has been further enhanced by its impressive coverage of the tragic events of East Timor.

Despite its financial constraints, having originally been set up on a shoestring, BBC World News has fought its way up to become a First Division player, highly regarded for the depth of its coverage, as well as its speed and breadth, and became a cause of much anxiety at CNN's Atlanta headquarters. It is no coincidence that since BBC World's launch, CNNI has poached the BBC's head of Newsgathering, Chris Cramer, and a senior BBC World editor, Tim Lister.

BBC World News is a true oddity within the BBC: it is the only BBC TV channel to carry commercial advertising. Not surprisingly, there were anxieties in the BBC about the corporation going so deeply into the commercial market with its news and current affairs output, a concern exacerbated by the fact that news channels are notoriously bad at turning a profit. This hasn't been helped by the news that BBC World lost £15.6m last year, causing a projected loss of around 50 jobs.

Such losses should be seen in context: CNN admits it took 12 years to go into profit with its domestic service. Its off-spring, CNN International, riding in on the back of the domestic service, says it went into the black in just five years, but broadcasting insiders are immensely sceptical that this is so. BSkyB, another major player, in Europe at least, still doesn't earn a profit, 10 years after being launched. Nor does it really expect to. As a Sky News spokesman put it: "The news is a key strategic asset within Sky, as it adds a lot kudos and authority. We see it as a public service first and foremost."

Lady Thatcher, in her time as Prime Minister, was adamant that no government money should go into the setting up of an international TV channel by the BBC. It had to be commercial, or not at all. For many people inside government and the BBC, this was the final word on the matter. But it shouldn't be.

Times have changed and the government should think again about making a modest grant-in-aid investment - say about $50m, the cost or a warplane or two - in BBC World. The money would be ringfenced for World and offered on exactly the same terms as the grant-in-aid for World Service Radio.

The advantage of grant-in-aid is that it requires governments of whatever persuasion to give BBC World Service total editorial independence. The independence of BBC World would be further reinforced by taking away the commercial pressures that can arise under the present funding arrangements.

At least some of the grant-in-aid could come from the huge sums currently spent on the government propaganda arms, the Central Office of Information and British Satellite News. Details of the COI and BSN budgets are hard to come by.

Fifty million pounds would, according to my calculations, not just avoid the programme cutbacks due to be phased in from next Christmas, but would allow World to regionalise its output, making it more attractive to viewers in the different parts of the globe. At the same time, the BBC should undo the ill-judged decision by John Birt in 1996 to hive off responsibility for BBC World from World Service. By all means, leave bulletin production with BBC News, but editorially the channel rightly belongs under the World Service umbrella as the programme commissioner. World Service would then, in effect, be able to give BBC World free of charge, to the corporation's commercial arm, BBC Worldwide.

BBC Worldwide would continue to satellite the channel around the globe, and would recover its costs through cable sales and advertising. The advertising would be confined to the gaps between programmes. Those irritating advertising slots within news bulletins would go.

Neither ITN (anxious to get into the global market) nor BSkyB is likely to care much for my proposal, raising the "fair trading" canard. But then they would object, wouldn't they. But with the best will in the world, neither BSkyB nor ITN can match the BBC for its unique network of more than 250 overseas correspondents and reporters and the level of accuracy and insight such a network brings.

Even Lady Thatcher spotted this benefit. She did not much care for World Service's irritatingly-dogged independence, of course, but she did very much enjoy the warm glow that the BBC's status brought her as she hand-bagged her way across the international scene. She was thus able to distance World Service, in her own mind, from the rest of the loathed BBC, pumping extra money into its operations. It is a shame she never felt the same for the fledgling BBC World Television.

The joy for the United Kingdom and its political masters is that BBC World Service and BBC World are a constant reminder abroad that Britain is still a political, military, economic and cultural force to be reckoned with, despite its relatively modest population and geographical size -- all this simply by giving the BBC the freedom to wave the flag for journalistic integrity and democratic ideals.

True, there are no votes to be garnered - no elections to won or lost -- in funding the BBC's global achievements and ambitions, but as every Prime Minister, Foreign Secretary and Chancellor of the Exchequer has discovered, there is much reflected glory and pride to be had as a result of the BBC's status and influence abroad.

Grand-in-aid funding would protect BBC World against becoming just another channel on the increasingly-crowded global broadcasting scene. This would avoid a situation that effectively left the field open to CNN and its narrow, entirely-American perspective of world events. Surely this is not what Britain, Tony Blair - or indeed any British Prime Minister - would want.

Ian Richardson was a senior editor with BBC World Service, BBC World Service Television and BBC Arabic Television.