Minister boosts World Service funding hopes

 The BBC World Service is quietly confident of a funding boost following a speech by junior foreign minister Denis MacShane at a Labour Party conference fringe meeting about the need to push democracy in Muslim countries.

In his address on Tuesday, MacShane highlighted the World Service as a leading part of a new initiative to promote greater understanding between the West and the Arab world.

However, sources at the Foreign Office said that it was too early to say how this might affect World Service funding.

BBC chiefs are in talks with the Foreign Office to secure extra funds following a £3m expansion of its services in and around Afghanistan.

The BBC’s Arabic news service has been expanded, to run as a continuous 24-hour rolling news and current affairs service.

Pashto, Persian and Urdu services have already been increased by up to seven hours a day with further increases likely as the crisis unfolds.

Medium-wave transmissions to Afghanistan and short-wave transmissions to the region have also been boosted.

The expansion has cost the BBC World Service £3m so far, and it was likely that extra services would be added as the situation evolved, said its director, Mark Byford.

"We will be reviewing the coverage in the coming weeks, and depending on what happens, it’s likely that there will be further expansion in both distribution and content, and I am certain that there won’t be any decrease," said Byford.

The World Service is privately welcoming MacShane’s pronouncements of more support, although, said one insider: "We’ve been doing this sort of work for a very long time already." In a country that has no national newspaper or TV stations, the BBC World Service is a key source of information in Afghanistan, where 62 per cent of the population tune in daily. Osama bin Laden and members of the Taliban are known to be listeners.

"At a time like this, more than any other, we have to uphold the values of accuracy, fairness and impartiality. People may not like all that they hear, but we have a reputation of being fair," said Byford. "This is a time when public service broadcasting really comes into its own."

By Julie Tomlin and Martin McNamara

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