Foreign language closures to fund BBC's Arabic channel

By Colin Crummy

The BBC World Service’s new Arabic television channel, intended to
rival Al Jazeera, will create 200 jobs, but at the expense of at least
236 posts as 10 of its foreign language services close.

A total of 201 new jobs are expected from the redirecting of
existing funds the corporation receives from the Foreign Office – 148
in the new Arabic channel, 41 in New Media initiatives and 12 in
international offices.

But foreign language service closures in
Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Greece, Hungary, Kazakhstan,
Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia and Thailand will mean 127 job losses in the
UK and 91 overseas. A further 18 posts will be lost in other
reallocation, including the Portuguese service for Brazil.

The
corporation also announced further cuts saving £2.3m at the World
Service news and current affairs department, with the potential loss of
45 to 50 jobs. These include reductions in staffing and programme
length at The World and The Weekend World. Jobs in programme planning
and production support may also be axed.

At a press conference
this week to outline the changes, Nigel Chapman, director of BBC World
Service, admitted that staff at the foreign language offices had “very
special skills”, making it difficult to re-employ them within the
corporation. “Some of these aretransferable to the BBC and the wider
world, but I suspect that for some people it will have to be compulsory
[redundancy].”

But he added: “The contribution of all staff in
the BBC language services in these areas has been immense. It is
acknowledged that their presence has contributed to the building of
freedoms now enjoyed by their citizens. We believe this will be a
lasting legacy.”

The new Arabic channel will be part of a
tri-media project – using television, radio and online – by the
corporation and the first publicly fundedinternational television
service launched by the BBC. It will launch in 2007, initially
broadcasting 12 hours a day. The foreign language closures are planned
to be complete by March 2006.

NUJ general secretary Jeremy Dear
said: “This is a bitter blow to BBC World Service staff and a step that
has the potential to cause massive damage to Britain’s influence in a
significant part of New Europe. How can the BBC call itself a genuinely
world service when significant language sections are to be closed?”

Chapman
said the increasing availability of independent media and declining
audience levels in Eastern Europe accounted for the decision to cut
back the service. Conversely, he added, “without a BBC news presence in
Arabic on television, we [the BBC] run the risk of always being second
to television, despite the quality of our radio and new media offers”.

The
BBC previously launched a commercially funded subscription channel in
Arabic in 1994, which closed after two years following a disagreement
with Saudi-backed distributor Orbit.

Commenting on the additional
cuts to BBC News, NUJ broadcasting officer Paul McLaughlin said: “Let
us make it clear – we will not accept a single compulsory redundancy,
neither will we stand aside and allow the quality of the service to
diminish.”

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