Silencing the voice of Britain - fury as BBC World Service cuts 650 jobs

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THE government has been warned that cuts to the BBC World Service will "irreparably" damage Britain's reputation around the world.

Unions leaders threatened industrial action yesterday after it was announced 650 World Service jobs and five language services would go as part of a restructuring by the corporation.

The BBC blamed changes to the funding of the World Service - which from 2014 will be paid for by the licence fee rather than the government - and made clear that the organisation had strongly opposed the cuts.

The changes include the loss of the Serbian, Albanian, Macedonian, Portuguese for Africa and English for the Caribbean services, which will reduce the 180 million global audience by 30 million.

In the Commons, Foreign Secretary William Hague was told by former Labour Foreign Office minister Denis MacShane that the coalition had succeeded where dictatorships had failed.

Mr MacShane said the changes would see "irreparable damage" done to Britain, adding: "You are doing in part what no dictator has ever achieved - silencing the voice of the BBC, the voice of Britain, the voice of democracy, the voice of balanced journalism at a time when it is more than ever needed."

There was discontent from the Tory back-benches, with senior figures questioning why there had been a 16 per cent cut to the World Service budget while the international aid budget had been increased.

Andrew Tyrie, the Tory chairman of the Treasury select committee, said he hoped the government would reconsider. He told Mr Hague: "There is very deep concern in this House about this decision.

"I hope you will reconsider it with your Cabinet colleagues and in particular take a look at the overseas aid budget, which is increasing 37 per cent in real terms at a time when you are intending to implement 16 per cent cuts in the World Service.

"I hope you will hear the message from this House that if there is a choice between those two, then we want to put the World Service first."

However, Mr Hague insisted the World Service could not be exempt from changes or having its budget reviewed and denied there would be lasting damage.

Mr Hague said handing the World Service back to the BBC would strengthen its independence, adding that it had a "viable and strong" future.He added: "It is wrong to pretend there should never be any changes and never any reductions.

"We, of course, have to ensure we live within our means in this country, and this is part of doing that."

Earlier, Peter Horrocks, BBC global news director, broke the news to staff and said they were "clearly very sad", stressing the importance of the World Service to Britain's reputation across the world.

Mr Horrocks revealed that the government had been asked to help World Service staff from other countries working in Britain on a visa who might not want to return because of concerns for their safety.

He said: "This is a painful day for BBC World Service and the 180 million people around the world who rely on the BBC's global news services every week. We are making cuts that we would rather not be making."

BBC Trust chairman Sir Michael Lyons said it was a "difficult day" for the World Service, adding: "We have no choice other than to live within the reduced government grant."

Daya Thussu, professor of international communication and co-director of India Media Centre at the University of Westminster, said: "The decision … is an unwise move at a time when Britain's influence in the wider world is waning as new actors - China, India, Brazil - emerge."

Meanwhile, the unions threatened industrial action.

Jeremy Dear, general secretary of the National Union of Journalists, said: "The NUJ will join with other unions in defending jobs and quality broadcasting at the World Service."

Gerry Morrissey, general secretary of the broadcasting workers' union Bectu, warned: "The World Service will be much weakened and people will think less of the BBC and the UK as a result. These cuts are indeed a false economy."