On 7 September, the Guardian reported - as its lead story - that, to quote the headline, "BBC World Service broadcasts in Burma face axe".
As it turned out, no they don't.
Several things about the report immediately struck me as odd. It quoted a "diplomatic source" as saying that the BBC Burmese service "is very expensive and has relatively few listeners. The 'human rights' argument doesn't hold much sway with the new Foreign Office."
Neither of those specific claims about the Burmese service is true, something that any half-decent Guardian journalist assigned to write the paper's top story that day should have been able to determine. The Burmese radio service is one of the World Service's more modest sections: on the air for less than two hours a day, compared to, say, the Chinese service (five hours a day) or Arabic (18 hours a day on radio, plus a separate TV channel) and with a suitably modest budget. And, as the article noted briefly later, the BBC has a Burmese audience of an impressive 8.5 million.
The following day, the Guardian ran a further story, headlined: "World Service will face budget cuts – but risk to BBC Burma is 'small'".
This said (my emphasis):
Hague told the Commons foreign affairs committee that he would soon be telling the World Service what he thought it could achieve as a "contribution" to the spending review. But he said the BBC Burma service "does not cost very much" and closing it "probably wouldn't be a very good way of saving money".
"Here am I as someone who in opposition has appeared on platforms with Burmese human rights activists, launched books with Burmese human rights activists and been on the World Service talking about Burma and the importance of communicating into it. The chances that I'm then going to sit in my office and say, 'let's close the World Service into Burma' are correspondingly small."
So, the paper's story the previous day was nonsense. It was a lame attempt by someone to make a shroud-waving story out of nothing. They knew that Guardianistas would be horrified to think of the Burmese service being cut by the nasty Tories, so they built a story out of a quote from a "diplomatic source" - probably quite a junior FCO staffer who wanted to grind a personal axe and bad-mouth both the current government and the BBC. (Some FCO staff - not the whole organization - dislike the World Service simply because it's "not invented here" and resent the money spent on it from the FCO's budget.)
The Guardian and the "source" knew that the line about "The 'human rights' argument doesn't hold much sway with the new Foreign Office" would be another easy button to push to outrage the Guardianistas. But, for all I know, William Hague has done more for human rights in Burma than Robin Cook, Jack Straw, Margaret Beckett or David Miliband.
Here's the truth: speculation about which bits of the World Service will be cut are just that - speculation. We won't know for certain until after the formal announcement on 20 October of the whole government's spending review. Sure, some parts of the WS will be cut, and some parts more than others. Services, like the Burmese one, that deliver a big audience for a modest outlay, and meet an obvious need, have every chance of surviving with little or no cutback. Other areas, including some of Bush House's sacred cows, will likely get the chop.
Meanwhile, treat all Guardian stories about any public sector cuts as unreliable