LONDON – The BBC said Wednesday that it plans to cut 650 jobs, more than a quarter of the total, at its international World Service as part of efforts to slash spending by 46 million pounds ($73 million) a year.
The figures announced by the state-funded broadcaster come after government announced large-scale public spending cuts to cope with Britain's high budget deficit.
The BBC said the job losses come as part of preparation for the end of direct government funding in April 2014. At that point, the corporation will be funded through television license fee, which is paid by all households in Britain with a TV.
A group of around 50 World Service staff protested outside the service's headquarters in central London, holding up banners which read "World Service RIP."
BBC Global News Director Peter Horrocks said the cuts, which the broadcaster says will reduce its global audience by 30 million, was "a painful day for BBC World Service."
"We are making cuts in services that we would rather not be making," he said, but argued that the scale of funding cuts meant "we couldn't cope with this by efficiencies alone."
The BBC World Service, launched in 1932, costs 272 million pounds a year and boasts an audience of 180 million people worldwide across radio, television and online platforms. Its shortwave radio service has for decades provided a link between Britain and much of the developing world, with services in 32 languages.
The cuts mean BBC will ax its Macedonian, Albanian, Serbian, English for the Caribbean and Portuguese for Africa radio services, and will scale back radio programming in seven languages — Azeri, Mandarin Chinese, Russian, Spanish for Cuba, Turkish, Vietnamese, and Ukrainian — focusing instead on online, mobile and television content. In March, shortwave broadcasts will cease in Hindi, Kyrgyz, Nepali, Swahili and the Great Lakes service broadcast in Rwanda and Burundi.
The cuts to a bastion of international news were criticized by lawmakers in the House of Commons. Opposition Labour Party legislator Denis MacShane said the cuts would do "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."
Foreign Secretary William Hague defended the move to cut radio programming in favor of online platforms, stating that online Russian audiences have increased by 120 percent in the last year while radio audiences have declined by 85 percent since 2001.
"That is why it is absolutely right for the World Service to move more of its services to online and mobile services — that is the way the world is going," Hague said.
He said the BBC World Service, like any other taxpayer-funded body is "not immune from public spending constraints."
The first 480 jobs will be cut in 2011, with that number rising to 650 in three years. At present, the BBC World Service has a staff of 2,400 working for 32 language services.
BBC World Service said it also expects to generate additional savings after the move to the BBC's London headquarters at Broadcasting House in 2012.