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3 October 2022

The last thing Tories like me want is cuts to BBC World Service

Foreign language broadcasting, so often a vehicle for soft power, is exactly what justifies the licence fee.

By Henry Hill

It’s fair to say that the BBC is not universally admired among Conservatives. From free-marketeers who dislike its funding model and hegemonic status to culture warriors who accuse it of pushing a woke agenda, there are plenty on the right who want to reform, or even scrap, the Corporation.

Such attitudes aren’t universal. There remain plenty of Tories who, like me, think the BBC is an important national institution and plays (or at least, can play) a valuable role in national life; who recognise it as an unparalleled vehicle for soft power overseas, and an effective way of delivering public service broadcasting at home that might not appeal to commercial channels.

In an ideal world, the BBC would make it easier to argue in favour of its existence against sceptical colleagues. Unfortunately, time and again, the powers that be in Broadcasting House seem set on handing ammunition to their critics.

This week’s announcement of fresh cuts to the BBC World Service are a case in point. It is planning to end radio broadcasting in ten languages – Arabic, Persian, Kyrgyz, Uzbek, Hindi, Bengali, Chinese, Indonesian, Tamil and Urdu – and to shutter “some TV programming on local broadcasters across Africa and Asia”. While there are commitments to “investing in building audio and other digital capability… to replace radio”, this only seems to be occurring for Arabic and Persian. 

Nor is this the only disappointing cutback in recent weeks. Cuts to BBC Parliament mean that it will no longer be doing the sort of extensive coverage of party conferences, including debates, that occurred in the past.

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Both of these may be small things, and of marginal use to the average BBC user. I can’t say I’ve ever tuned in to BBC Radio Bengal, and as a regular attendee of Conservative conference the last thing I want to do with my spare time is tune in and watch it on TV.

But such things (and there are surely others, affecting people with other interests) are precisely the sort of thing that, to my mind, help justify paying the licence fee. I can get news and entertainment from any number of outlets, but only one payment so directly subsidises things that enhance our democracy and expand our international reach.

Every time the BBC shutters a radio station or pares back the sort of programming you won’t find on commercial channels, it undermines the case for giving it a privileged position relative to independent broadcasters. I may object, as many Tories do, to sport personalities airing their political views on Twitter, but I am no more enthused about being taxed to fund their big-money salaries.

Part of the fault rests with the Conservatives, who with a more thoughtful approach to the BBC over the past decade, could have acted to protect genuine public service programming, even in the context of overall cutbacks. Perhaps too, with the government seemingly hell-bent on losing the next election, BBC bosses think the threat of the Tory hatchet-men and -women is receding.

Such complacency would be short-sighted. The BBC can only occupy its unique position in British life – and defend its unique funding model – if it commands broad, cross-partisan support, and fulfils its mandate to deliver programming that nobody else will.

If it doesn’t, demands for change are only going to get harder to resist.

[See also: Who would win if an election was held today?]

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