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September 29, 2022updated 27 Jan 2023 7:03am

BBC World Service to cut almost 400 jobs in ‘digital-first’ £28.5m saving drive

By Charlotte Tobitt

The BBC is planning to cut almost 400 jobs in the World Service as part of a plan to save £28.5m from its £340m annual budget and shift more content from linear to digital.

The BBC is proposing to end ten radio services, including BBC Persian and BBC Arabic with both staying on linear TV, and move seven language services online-only. This will mean almost half of all 41 BBC World Service language services are digital-only.

The proposals also involve moving the production of some services out of London, including the Thai service to Bangkok, the Korean service to Seoul, the Bangla service to Dhaka and the Focus On Africa TV bulletin to broadcast from Nairobi. Press Gazette understands the staff at the Vietnamese language service are also being asked to move from London to Bangkok in Thailand.

The BBC said this will put these channels closer to their audiences and drive engagement, but Press Gazette understands some of the London-based journalists affected have concerns about their ability to relocate and a lack of press freedom in some of the countries to which they could be moved. Thailand is ranked 115th of 180 countries in RSF’s World Press Freedom Index.

The proposal involves the potential closure of about 382 jobs in news content, news output and operations.

A message to staff from BBC World Service director Liliane Landor, seen by Press Gazette, said: “The proposals we are sharing today will inevitably lead to a smaller World Service, as we continue to respond to financial challenges and move to a new structure and operating model.

“I want to reiterate that the potential job losses are in no way a reflection of the work everyone has been doing.” Landor added that “any transformation must begin at the top” and said the number of senior leader roles in World Services Languages would be reduced from eight to seven.

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Paul Siegert, national broadcasting organiser at the National Union of Journalists, said: “Today’s announcement is as a direct result of the government failing to fund the BBC properly. Let’s be clear, many of these services should be funded directly by the Foreign Office and not the BBC, as they were prior to 2011.

“There are direct benefits for the UK government through soft power and the influence it gets around the globe via the BBC World Service. The government needs to accept this and find the money to help fund the service before it’s too late.

“We are also concerned that some of the language services currently based in London are closing and the offices moving to Asia. This will lead to dozens of unnecessary job losses because many of the journalists will not be able to relocate due to human rights issues in the countries they are relocating to. The BBC needs to reassure us they are committed to redeploying these journalists and that there will be no compulsory redundancies.”

The news comes as the BBC is continuing to consult on a proposal to merge the BBC News and BBC World News channels, which would see 70 job cuts from the BBC News operation in the UK.

The BBC said its international services need to make savings of £28.5m as part of its wider £500m annual savings and digital reinvestment.

The BBC spent £340m on the World Service in 2021/22, £97m of which came from government grants.

The BBC said no language services will close altogether and that it will continue to operate in all the languages and countries it does at present. This includes continuing the 11 new languages into which it expanded in 2016, under its biggest expansion since the 1940s.

The BBC is proposing to end the radio services of the Arabic, Persian, Kyrgyz, Uzbek, Hindi, Bengali, Chinese, Indonesian, Tamil and Urdu languages.

It also wants to make the Chinese, Gujarati, Igbo, Indonesian, Pidgin, Urdu and Yoruba language services digital-only.

Staff were told the World Service would stop being organised internally by region, with teams instead brought together with those that serve "similar audience needs" depending in part on the digital penetration in the market, availability of other independent news and analysis.

In a statement, Landor said: "The role of the BBC has never been more crucial worldwide. The BBC is trusted by hundreds of millions of people for fair and impartial news, especially in countries where this is in short supply. We help people in times of crisis. We will continue to bring the best journalism to audiences in English and more than 40 languages, as well as increasing the impact and influence of our journalism by making our stories go further.

"There is a compelling case for expanding our digital services across the World Service in order to better serve and connect with our audiences. The way audiences are accessing news and content is changing and the challenge of reaching and engaging people around the world with quality, trusted journalism is growing."

The BBC said World Service English will continue to broadcast as a 24-hour radio service but will change its content and schedules to invest in new initiatives such as developing new podcasts, including one "for younger audiences globally". It will add more live news and sport and launch an hour-long science strand from Cardiff, where the science team relocated in the past year.

Elsewhere, the BBC said it would focus on impact rather than reach for example by reducing how much radio and TV it syndicates to partners in favour of audiences coming to it directly to help it "build long-term engagement". It also boasted that the World Service currently reaches 148 million people in an average week.

The plans also include creating a new centralised digital-first commissioning and newsgathering content production hub for all non-English language services, bringing together long-form investigations and documentaries such as those made by Africa Eye and BBC Arabic, creating a new China global unit in London to tell the global story of China, and creating an Africa content hub for all 12 African language services.

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