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What does the future hold for the World Service? Adrienne van Heteren writes from within an institution still seen as beacon of trustworthiness around the world
A strange atmosphere is hanging Bush House, the London home of the BBC World Service. It is not merely the melancholy of autumn but the sense that we are living at a real end of an era, symbolically affirmed by the pending closure of Beaumont House, for many years the World Service’s base for trainees journalists from all over the world.
I remember my very short stay there and the interesting meetings I had over breakfast with a young trainee journalist of the Burmese service. He had always known that he wanted to work for the World Service. He had an exceptional sense of wanting to serve his country for the better. He knew the risks, but he was fully committed.
The World Service is being briefed about the cuts now. We are told that they present exciting challenges. I’m not unwilling to follow the logic that change means stability. But it is autumn at Bush House. Leaves are falling and winter is coming. I am not so sure if there is anything anybody can do now. The government and the BBC have agreed a fixed deal for six years, until the end of the concession period in 2016. There will be significant cuts. The World Service budget will be paid for by the BBC as from 2014 and no longer by the Foreign Office (FCO) until the end of the concession period. After that: who knows?
Someone in India asks: is this the end of the World Service? I look around at my colleagues in the room and I think that a lot of people in World Service instinctively feel that they were somehow better protected under the FCO umbrella.
Of course it is not the end, we are told. In two years we will all move to a building that departing deputy director general of the BBC Mark Byford describes as the biggest and most modern media centre in the world. I think that is fantastic, but it does not really improve my mood.
As I look at a few Afghan guests in my office, brave people, who have no clue how what is being said on a screen above their heads will affect them. I remember my recent meeting with young Afghan journalist trainees, their plans, their enthusiasm and their common desire to be part of that World Service family of quality journalism, because they felt it vital for their country. So young and with such a desire to belong to something so old.
I strongly feel that we will all start to regret some of these changes later, much later when we can see that it is gone. Like closing a library with precious books because not enough people read them. The World Service is for many in the world that beacon of light in the night, that voice of reason, that clear stream of information among all the state propaganda.
As a foreigner — and with all due respect for Brits — sometimes a thought crosses my mind: perhaps the World Service should not be owned by the British. Because really it belongs to all the people of the world. And that is why I have to ask the question: What is going to happen with whatever is left of the World Service after 2016?
There are no easy answers. But once an institution is dismantled, its gone and you won’t get it back.
Adrienne van Heteren works for the BBC World Service Trust. This article is written in her personal capacity