The head of the BBC has warned that the corporation’s World Service will make further cuts unless the UK government provides urgent funding, as he noted Russia and China’s willingness to outspend Britain on international broadcasting.
In a speech to the Royal Television Society on Wednesday, BBC director-general Tim Davie called for “serious public service investment” to ensure the World Service was adequately supported in future.
“The Russians and Chinese are investing hundreds of millions, dare I say billions, in state-backed services,” said Davie. “We have a choice to make.”
The warning follows the World Service’s announcement in September of almost 400 job losses and the end of its Arabic and Persian radio provision as part of a £285mn cost-cutting plan. At the time, the BBC blamed the cutbacks on its tighter government funding settlement.
The service, which was founded in 1932 and has an average global audience of 364mn each week, is considered a pillar of British soft power that offers impartial information to people without access to quality news. It directly competes with Russia Today and China’s CGTN around the world, especially in Africa and Asia.
Davie said the BBC accounted for most of the World Service’s funding, or at least £254mn, and that an extra £94mn was coming from the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office over the next three years.
He declined to say whether further cuts would lead to more redundancies but defended previous decisions as “sensible choices to protect our reach and our services”.
Davie in his speech also outlined the broadcaster’s digital strategy and expressed openness to reforming or overhauling the licence fee, paid by all households that watch terrestrial television or BBC iPlayer, after the current settlement ends in December 2027.
“We’re not wedded to the licence fee. We’ve got clear principles but we’re open-minded to having a discussion,” he said, while stressing that any new funding mechanism would have to be “universal” rather than a voluntary subscription model.
“We’re a £5.3bn sales [corporation] that’s a mid-to-small scale operator in the global landscape,” he said, in a nod to rival US entertainment companies including Netflix and Disney.
Davie also insisted any funding solution would have to allow the BBC to remain independent of politics, saying: “The ability to report without fear or favour . . . that’s non-negotiable for us.”
The government in January imposed one of the fiercest funding squeezes on the corporation in decades, freezing the licence fee at £159 per household for two years. That forced the BBC to make sweeping cuts as inflation and cost increases eroded its funding in real terms.
Culture secretary Michelle Donelan told MPs on Tuesday it was “undeniable that the licence fee is not a long-term sustainable model in its own right”.