Marking 80 years of the BBC World Service

This speech was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

Foreign Secretary William Hague said that the World Service has been an example of the very best of Britain when he spoke at the 80th anniversary.

It is a pleasure to be here as you mark 80 years of the BBC World Service: an inspiring milestone and a cause for pride, celebration and optimism about the future.

I know that it is also a poignant week, as you prepare to leave this historic building where many of you have spent your careers and to move to your new London site.

Bush House - described by one of your staff as a “united nations of broadcasting”- has a legendary reputation in the eyes of journalists from all over the world. But I have every confidence that the best traditions and highest standards of the World Service will continue in your new and state-of-the-art home alongside the rest of the BBC family, and I wish you all the best with that new beginning.

It is also poignant at a time when we have been reminded of the dire risks many journalists take to bring important stories and injustices to the attention of the world. Lord Williams has just recalled some of the many World Service men and women who have died overseas or in this country, to whom I also pay tribute, and we are all still shocked by the very recent and tragic deaths of Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik in Homs. In a world marked by conflict, repression and injustice in too many places, the staff of World Service and their colleagues worldwide have an essential role to play.

For many millions of people around the world the World Service is the voice of Britain overseas. The former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan described the World Service as quite possibly “Britain’s greatest gift to the World in the 20th Century”, and I see as Foreign Secretary the immense contribution it makes to how Britain is perceived internationally. For 166 million listeners and viewers each week across the globe the World Service is a source of reliable and impartial information that transcends borders, regions and cultures.

When I met Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma two months ago, in the house where she spent all her years of house arrest, she told me that the World Service had been her lifeline to the outside world during all those years.

And in many of the poorest or most oppressed parts of the world, access to information is a crucial means of empowerment, education and political awareness. This matters enormously.

After Haiti’s devastating earthquake BBC Caribbean broadcast a daily 20 minute programmes in Haitian Creole to provide basic information to help people locate medical aid, food and water supplies.

And we have just held the largest ever international summit on Somalia - the world’s worst failed state over the last twenty years - where your recent figures show that more than 60 per cent of adults in Somaliland and Puntland use the radio services of the World Service. That is a remarkable fact and a great asset for this country as well as for Somalis themselves, in a country that is so insecure that we have not had an Embassy in Mogadishu for twenty years, although I am proud to say that when I went there I took the new British Ambassador with me - and we will soon have a new Embassy there.

Today the World Service is proving its immense importance and value again in the context of the Arab Spring: adapting content by using social media as a news-gathering device, and broadcasting this content so that the audience is at the heart of the news story; achieving a record rise in BBC Arabic audience figures in Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Lebanon and Morocco; and overcoming censorship in Iran to almost double the viewers of BBC Persian TV.

For all these reasons the World Service is one of our country’s most important sources of soft power, with an unparalleled ability to reach out across the globe.

We are all operating now in an extremely difficult economic environment, and the World Service has not been immune from the cuts that have taken place across the board in Government spending.

While this has been a difficult period, the reduction in funding for the current spending period compares favourably to many other publicly-funded bodies.

The transfer of the BBC World Service funding from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to the licence fee from 2014-2015 will provide scope for significant savings and greater coherence. Separating funding decisions for the World Service from Government spending round decisions will also make it is easier to plan spending over the longer time frame than has been possible in the past.

But this change does not in any way reduce the importance we attach to the World Service in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

The Foreign Secretary of the day retains responsibilities, working with the BBC, for setting the objectives, target and priorities for the World Service - and no language services can be opened or closed without my agreement. Last year in recognition of the challenges the World Service was facing and the unprecedented events of the Arab Spring we found an additional £2.2 million per year for the World Service to support Arabic programming.

And as Peter Horrocks said recently “a tight financial climate does not mean that the World Service needs to shrink its ambition”. I am pleased that Lord Williams of Baglan has been appointed to the BBC Board of Trustees with specific oversight of the BBC’s international services. He will play a vital role in helping the World Service address the challenges and opportunities ahead.

The World Service’s appetite to deliver greater impact and remain the most trusted broadcaster in the world is very impressive. And I have every faith in its ability to continue to with its world-leading programming, playing an active role in shaping the way that Britain and our values are perceived around the world. It will certainly have the full support of the whole Government in that important work.

2012 is a year in which the whole world has their eyes on Britain, as The Queen celebrates her Diamond Jubilee and we host the Olympics and Paralympics. It is a year to celebrate what is Great about Britain and a very timely moment to celebrate your achievements. For eight decades the World Service has been an example of the very best of Britain. I am sure that that global recognition and reputation will continue long into the future. So I congratulate you all - and may the next 80 years be a successful as the last.