Should we welcome a commercial BBC World Service?

Mark Banham asks if the corporation's international radio network should be allowed to start carrying advertising.

At the start of this year, the director of the BBC World Service caused a stir by revealing in a missive to the House of Lords that the international broadcaster would become a commercial operation.

At least that’s what the chattering classes and their favourite broadsheets would have you believe. The truth is that this was to be a very localised proposition, based in Berlin, that would act as a test bed for the BBC’s FM channels to see if it could make up for the shortfall once the Foreign Office pulled the plug on funding for this most venerable of institutions.

Advertising has also been introduced in the Spanish-, Arabic- and Russian-language editions of the BBC website.

Despite this being virgin territory for the World Service, the BBC’s television channels outside of the UK, along with its websites, have accepted advertising for some years now. That it has not yet begun to introduce advertising to its radio assets is arguably the anachronism.

BBC Global News (the corporation’s foreign news channels and digital sites) made a loss of £800,000 in 2012/13, compared with an operating profit of £4.2 million during the previous period.

The World Service cannot afford the negative publicity such a loss attracts when its funding switches from the Foreign Office to the licence fee and nascent advertising revenues this month – an agreement negotiated on the back of the last renewal of the BBC charter with the then newly elected coalition government in October 2010.

For some, this hints at a creeping commercialism across the BBC’s radio assets (which has been vehemently ruled out by the BBC in the UK and is not allowed under current charter rules).

The commercialisation of the World Service will almost certainly mean increased competition for some regional broadcasters and will in­evitably change the listener experience with the BBC. But, with a sharp focus on its finances, is the World Service carrying advertising the thin end of the wedge or just a controlled evolution of BBC funding? And, just as important, should it be welcomed?


YES Tom Drummond, head of radio, Initiative

"There is an emotional attachment to it because, as soon as you see the BBC is going to take advertising, you immediately think ‘no’. Objectively, I don’t think it will open Pandora’s box and advertising leaks on to other BBC properties."

MAYBE Siobhan Kenny, chief executive, RadioCentre

"It should be allowed to explore funding its public value output through non-politically-affiliated ads. So long as the ads don’t threaten the livelihood of established local media, it should be a win/win for the BBC and the licence-fee-payer."

NO Howard Bareham, head of radio, Mindshare

"This opens a wider debate about BBC funding and a possible two-tier system involving government departments or the licence fee and also advertising. This would be dangerous for commercial radio broadcasters that don’t have that luxury."

MAYBE Paul Keenan, chief executive, Bauer Media

"The BBC is dominant in UK news delivery, so this initiative must not distort this further through a form of cross-subsidy. The channels must be given clear editorial guidelines so they do not become UK commercial radio international de facto."