BBC World Service chief predicts 'tough' funding talks

The BBC World Service has said it is already gearing up for “a very tough conversation” with the Government when its funding comes up for renewal shortly after the next general election.

World Service director Nigel Chapman told a Voice of the Listener and Viewer meeting yesterday that the current turmoil in the global economy – and the Government’s decision to pump cash into troubled banks – could have a knock-on effect on the amount the network receives from the Foreign Office.

He said the Labour government had been keen supporters of the World Service, which is funded by a £270m-a-year grant-in-aid from the Foreign Office, but dismissed suggestions that a swing to a Conservative government at the next general election could have a negative impact on how much the service receives.

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“We’ve had good settlements from this Labour government,” he said. “They’ve always given us an inflation-plus increase. The money comes with strings – it has to be used for very specific things.

“There’s always been cross-party support for the World Service. I’ve got more supporters in Parliament than I need. If I have to mobilise the army it would be very large.

“Politicians in any party realise it wouldn’t be worth having a fight with the World Service – you just damage your reputation.”

The network’s current funding package was renewed in April this year and is secure until 2011, but Chapman said renewal negotiations with the Government would begin soon after the next general election, which must be held no later than May 2010.

“I’ll fight hard to get as much as I can, but the events of the last few weeks don’t help. It’s going to be a very tough conversation.”

Chapman defended the decision to close a number of under-performing language services – which have led to job losses in places such as Romania and Bulgaria.

“My job is to work out which horse to back in which race, how much money to put on it and what the effect is likely to be,” he said.

“I’ve closed 11 services in the past few years. We withdraw from places at the same rate as we put our resources into other areas. It’s very much a strategic realignment.”

One of these “realignments” prompted a campaign by the NUJ earlier this year, after the World Service announced it was moving a number of London-based jobs on its Nepali, Hindi and Urdu services to Indian sub-continent.

An NUJ motion passed in April claimed the move would “involve a dramatic worsening of terms and conditions, jobs, and will inevitably result in compromises to the editorial integrity, as the BBC will have to comply with local media law and policy”.

But Chapman said yesterday that some staff who had been vocal about the move were “exaggerating the matter because they don’t want to go”.

He acknowledged that many of the affected journalists and producers had family in London, but said the excuse “that everyone’s worked in London for years and years I can’t accept”.

“It’s wrong strategically. Staff lose touch with audiences. We need to make change,” he said.

“I think it’s important that we have more staff working close to the audiences where they are broadcasting. Usually a service needs some staff in London and some overseas.”

The latest project for the World Service is the launch “within weeks” of a new Farsi-language multimedia rolling news service, which Chapman said had received long-term Home Office funding “as far as the eye can see”.

The BBC Persian service will provide news to the people of Iran by satellite, with Farsi-speaking correspondents stationed in major news spots such as Washington, Beirut and Kabul.

Another item on the World Service’s agenda is its move – scheduled for 2012 – from its iconic Bush House home to a new purpose-built wing at Broadcasting House.

“It was meant to be a hotel and shopping centre,” Chapman said of Bush House, which the World Service has occupied for almost 70 years.

“It’s a rabbit warren of offices. It’s got great history and nostalgic effect but as a 21st century broadcasting centre it’s a bit of a problem.”

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