The BBC World Service has been reprieved. An additional £2.2m will be spent to
preserve the Arabic service, in line with some of the wishes of Foreign Affairs Select Committee Chairman Richard Ottaway and Lord Patten, the chairman of the BBC and occasional consigliere to
I don’t share the Foreign Office’s sometime view that this is a ‘massive
u-turn’, but it is a significant development. Opposition to cuts to the World Service budget came from across the House; but it originated from Tory backbenchers, who were very confident that they would secure a
concession. The subsequent climb down suggests that Downing Street is prepared to consult with and act upon the wishes of the often recalcitrant Right.
Away from Westminster, the decision to preserve the Arabic service specifically is clearly a response to al-Jazeera’s dominant coverage of the Arab Spring, which has come at the World Service’s expense.
Al Jazeera’s triumph was symptomatic of an acute British foreign policy failure on Arab Street. Last year, substantial resources were apparently invested in a ‘conflict avoidance
team’ for the FCO’s North Africa desk; and in February 2010, Vincent Fean, Britain’s ambassador to Tripoli, urged businessmen to invest in the stable Gaddafi regime. It’s little surprise, then, that the Foreign Office
tripped into chaos when the revolts broke earlier this year. The FCO has striven to rectify the situation
ever since, to which the salvation of the Arabic service attests.
And the government won’t stop here. Whatever the motivations behind the spat between Downing Street and the MoD, it is plain that Britain still has
global ambitions beyond flogging Rollers to the Calcuttan nouveau riche, and that there are different ways to achieve them. William Hague has admitted that DfID’s ever inflating budget might be
used to fund the World Service (and presumably other instruments that spread democratic and liberal ideals). It may be that this is the start of a ‘massive u-turn’ to make controversial international development work in Britain’s favour; or
at least more obviously than it does now.
PS: For its part, the BBC Trust has reallocated £9m to ensure that the World Service’s short-range operations in Hindi and Somali are preserved for the time being.