Tha National Audit Office gave the BBC World Service operation a largely clean bill of health in a financial review published yesterday, but, as is my wont, here are some niggles.
The World Service closed 630 posts (1 in 4) between 2010 and 215, and seems to be on track to reduce its annual running costs by almost £60m a year by 2016/17, getting rid of a further 107 jobs. Given that background, increasing the audience from 166m to 246m over five years is something of a miracle.
Clues to parts of the miracle come in an NAO critique of the BBC Global Audience Measure
- "inevitably only an estimate". In any year, 10% of the data used to construct it is 10 years old, and another 23% is two to five years old. Stuff older than 10 years is discarded, but that creates swings and lurches. The 2014/15 GAM included an audience of
2.7 million for Cameroon, surveyed for the first time since 2003, and whose previous data had been excluded in 2013. In contrast, data for 10 surveys
was removed in 2014-15 due to the 10-year rule, cutting the GAM by 1 million.
On whether or not the World Service audience likes the output, the NAO says the BBC doesn't know enough. It uses data from satisfaction surveys which cover "BBC News" as a whole, and last year selected data from just 12 countries, overweighted in favour of Europe. European countries
accounted for 25% of respondents to the survey, but only 6.5% of the Service’s
audience in 2014-15.
Nine language services are not meeting the BBC's own criteria of cost-effectiveness, with Vietnamese, at £1.42 per audience member per year, Usbek at £1.17, and Turkish, at £1.13 the most expensive. The NAO says the BBC could be more transparent about these sort of stats when planning to open and close services.
Back to jobs - and new investment by the Government, a model of consistency, of £289m over the four years ahead is likely to create close to as many jobs as have been cut. Yet, says the NAO, at May 2016, the Foreign Office had yet to say how it would assess the impact of the extra
funding against objectives.
There's an interesting pointer as to why James Harding, Director of News, is taking hands-on interest in this extra funding - the NAO found that, in 2014-15, 46% of World Service costs were budgeted to other parts of News. BBC News faces cuts of £80m over the next four years from its licence fee funding. The new Foreign Office money, if spent evenly, is just over £72m a year; 46% means £35m a year could go into the budgets of other BBC News departments. Clearly ring-fenced, of course.