In a move sure to trigger paranoid scrutiny by commercial broadcasters, the BBC has announced it is combining the tax-funded BBC World Service radio operation with its BBC World TV arm, to form a single international news and information unit.

Driven, said the BBC, by “audience focus”, the new division will also include international online news operations, and launch at the start of the Corporation’s new financial year in April. At the helm will be Mark Byford, presently director of the World Service.

“The BBC’s global role is of huge importance and significance, never more so than at this time of conflict,” commented director general Greg Dyke, unveiling the scheme. Working in partnership with main news service BBC News, the new unit is designed to gather and distribute information more efficiently, though its effect on costs and workforce are yet to be assessed.

The World Service is supported by a £183 million grant from the government’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office, but BBC World gains revenue from advertising and subscription fees, leaving the new division open to claims it is using taxpayer’s money to gain an unfair advantage in the commercial marketplace.

Although the BBC stressed that the two services will retain “separate identities” with “different funding streams” and “no cross subsidy”, the announcement was greeted cautiously by commercial rivals. Both CNN and BSkyB said it was too early to comment on the integration’s implications, but the latter warned: “We believe it would not be appropriate for the commercial arm of the BBC to benefit either directly or indirectly from state funds.”

BBC World – which has seen its distribution rise from 80m households to 180m in the last three years – will no longer be part of commercial arm BBC Worldwide, which sells programmes and formats around the world. Said a spokesman: “BBC Worldwide has other considerations, including shows like the [children’s programme] Teletubbies, but the new division will be focused only on international news.”

Described by UN secretary-general Kofi Annan in 1998 as “perhaps Britain’s greatest gift to the world this century”, the World Service attracts around 153 million weekly listeners across the globe.

News source: Wall Street Journal