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Death by a thousand cuts

The World Service is being purged. How can it survive?

Just over two years ago listeners started to comment about the reduction of the arts coverage on the already cuts-laden BBC World Service. The station’s dedicated film programme had long gone and Mark Coles’s beloved world music programme was on the point of being scrapped. A fear obtained: that the World Service was being pared back to a rolling news channel. These fears have now been confirmed. Last week it was announced that the station’s crammed and brilliantly varied daily arts programme, The Strand – already reduced from half an hour to 20 minutes last year – is scheduled to go in April.

In a worrying and depressing internal email the director of the station, Peter Horrocks, forced now to make a further ruinous £12m in savings, promised to offer “a new approach to covering arts, music and humanities” by extending the current-affairs programme Outlook with a daily ten-minute section “looking at the people behind the world of music, entertainment, film and the performance arts”. But looking at it in what way? Anyone familiar with Outlook knows that its brief is to find the human stories behind the news – a man giving up a medical career in Europe to run a hospital in Mogadishu, and so on. Very often these are triumph over tragedy stories. Will the arts coverage contained within Outlook be forced to focus on artists who have managed to overcome odds – poverty, disablement, political hell? What of stories about art itself?

Recently The Strand talked to the production designer of Cloud Atlas about how he tried to make the film’s six very different storylines coherent, and to a Kenyan author about the role of the internet in current fiction from Africa. This is decidedly not Outlook material. Indeed, staff on the programme have already been told in no uncertain terms that arts coverage on Outlook would need to chime with that programme’s human-interest brief. How easily, anyway, one can imagine the arts slot being routinely dropped in favour of some heartbreaking lastminute personal story. Despite listeners emailing in from Hong Kong and Iran to protest (some complaining about the station’s “endless repetitive news”), with plans also to cut its terrific documentary programme Your World, we can only shudder at the thoroughness of this latest purge.

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 November 2012 issue of the New Statesman, What if Romney wins?