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More about the funding boost for BBC World Service

Francesca Unsworth

Director, BBC World Service

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Earlier this week the Government announced a funding boost for the BBC World Service - £34m in 2016/17 followed by £85m a year, around a third of our current budget, for the next three years.

This is clearly a huge vote of confidence in the World Service, and a recognition that it is a unique cultural asset – not only for the BBC but for Britain.

But what is the context of this decision? And will it change how we operate?

In September, as part of our vision for the next ten years of the BBC, we set out ambitious plans for the expansion of the World Service, to address the growing deficit in global news and to meet our target of reaching half a billion people weekly by 2022. We wanted to respond to the rapidly changing world, in which media freedom is diminishing in many places.

These plans included new services in countries such as North Korea, Ethiopia and Eritrea, and enhanced services across Africa, Russia and its neighbouring countries. The way people consume news is rapidly changing the world over, so we are aiming to do more digitally.

We made clear we did not expect licence fee payers to support this expansion, as we think there's a limit to how much they should pay for overseas services, notwithstanding the benefits. And we said we would discuss with Government their interest in supporting us.

The new money announced yesterday comes in response to our vision and those discussions with Government. It is earmarked to be spent on these new and enhanced services across the world. It is quite separate from the wider discussions about the next BBC Charter, which are still ongoing.

The UK Government has committed to spend a proportion of national income on overseas development, and they have said that some World Service funding might fall into this category.

And of course, part of the World Service’s remit in developing countries, as laid down by the BBC Trust, is to aim to improve the welfare and economic development of citizens through journalism that contributes to accountability and good governance.

But does receiving Government funding compromise the BBC’s independence? In a word, no. The Government has given us firm guarantees about our ongoing independence. If they had not done so, we wouldn’t have accepted this money.

Our editorial independence must remain paramount. It’s our fundamental principle – and it’s one of the reasons we’re trusted by 210m people around the world.

Of course, receiving Government funding is not unprecedented for the World Service – for more than 80 years we were solely funded by FCO. It was only last year we came back into licence fee funding – which still remains the source of the majority of our budget. This reintegration has meant we now work more closely than ever with our colleagues in UK news services and bilingual reporters around the world can bring their local expertise to UK news programmes. And this will continue.

So will this funding change the way we do things? No – and yes. What won’t change is our commitment to independent, impartial and accurate journalism, to enabling the world to speak to the world, to providing a truly international news service.

But I’m clear that this funding boost can’t just mean business as usual. In addition to the new services, we need to press ahead with our digital transformation. The way audiences access news is changing rapidly, but at different rates, and we must ensure we’re available in the ways that audiences want to see or hear us. We have pledged to increase the World Service’s commercial income. There is a huge amount of hard work to be done to reach different audiences and to stay ahead of our competition.

I’m confident the potential gains are huge - for the BBC, for Britain, and for the millions around the world who rely on us for news and information they trust.


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