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BBC Transmitter

The BBC: at a Credibility Crossroads

Sep 10, 2015


The future of the BBC World Service as a credible and independent news organization is in question. In announcing the creation of a satellite TV service for Russian speakers and a daily radio news program for North Korea, the Director-General of the BBC, Tony Hall, is in danger of crossing the fine line between public diplomacy and propaganda.

It is surprising that the BBC would wish to single out particular countries that it wishes to target, rather than the language services it wishes to expand, for by doing so the organization cedes ground to its critics around the world who view the World Service as an instrument of British propaganda. These decisions imply that the BBC World Service is connected to a political agenda - something that the organization, and the World Service in particular, has vigorously avoided since its creation. The American Radio Free Asia (RFA) already broadcasts to North Korea as part of its remit to provide news and information to audiences living in authoritarian political systems. RFA is therefore, rightly or wrongly, perceived as a propaganda station with little credibility. The BBC is now in danger of suffering the same fate.

Most worrying is Tony Hall’s claim that the BBC has “a strong commitment to uphold global democracy.” Mr Hall, it does not. The BBC has no such commitment, and nor should it. The BBC World Service has one commitment only: to provide timely, impartial, and accurate news and information for its listeners around the world. The BBC is not an instrument of Cold War politics; and it is not a mechanism for the promotion of democracy in any area of the world. It is a model of journalism that is the envy of news broadcasters across the globe. By remaining impartial and accurate, the BBC will continue to be respected among audiences and feared by authoritarian regimes as the UK’s most important soft power asset.

Tony Hall has tried to rationalize these proposals in terms of competition from other international broadcasters, such as Russia’s RT and China’s CCTV. First, we will gloss over the BBC’s mistake of closing its shortwave Mandarin service in 2011, when it was quite obvious that the Chinese were investing in the rapid expansion of their own international broadcasting. Where was the sense of competition then? 

The BBC World Service has one commitment only: to provide timely, impartial, and accurate news and information for its listeners around the world. The BBC is not an instrument of Cold War politics; and it is not a mechanism for the promotion of democracy in any area of the world.

The more important argument is that the Director-General is conferring on CCTV and RT a level of credibility they do not deserve. While we do not know how many people watch either station since neither undertakes any serious audience analysis, watching a television broadcast does not mean you agree with its position or content. Polling data suggests that there is no correlation between expenditure on soft power activities, including international broadcasting, and positive changes in attitudes towards China. In fact, the polls reveal a reversal of fortune despite the huge investment in public diplomacy, and one can argue that this is due to negative perceptions of China’s policy and behavior, especially among China’s neighbors. Russia’s poll ratings abroad have likewise become increasingly unfavorable since 2004, notwithstanding the Kremlin’s investment in soft power and public diplomacy activities, including RT. In public diplomacy, actions always speak louder than words. In terms of credibility, neither RT nor CCTV are the equivalent of the BBC. Tony Hall is worrying for no reason. In the competition that matters, the BBC is streets ahead.

So the BBC World Service should continue to do what it does and maintain its commitment to doing it well: broadcasting in Russian, for all Russian speakers across the world; broadcasting in Koreans for all Koreans, North and South of the DMZ.  This is how the BBC World Service can be a soft power asset for the UK – not by tying its output to a particular political agenda, but by leaving it alone to do its job as a news service unhindered by political agendas.

Photo by Ross / CC BY-SA 2.0


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The problem is in the descriptions of BBC World Service

Professor Rawnsley's concerns are justified. The problem is not so much the way the BBC World Service understands its role, but the inartful way in which that role is described.

For example, the BBC Media Centre (press office), in describing the BBC's recent proposal for its future, included this: "Significant investment in the World Service to parts of the world where there is a democratic deficit in impartial news. This is about upholding Britain’s place in the world and the promotion of British values."

Use of the verb "promote" is fraught with hazards for any genuine news organization. Yes, BBC World Service does "promote" British values, but it does so by not consciously setting out to promote anything. It does so, instead, by providing the independent journalism that the people of any country need to make up their own minds about current events. For that reason, "promote" is best implied rather than explicit in descriptions of World Service.

Through the past decades, BBC World Service has conferred with the UK government about the languages in which it should transmit. This especially made sense before 2014, when the Foreign and Commonwealth Office provided the funds for World Service. The determination of language services has been a compromise involving UK foreign policy needs and the BBC's assessment of which language communities are most in need of news from an external source. Beyond that, the BBC has sole authority over content and journalistic decisions. My own listening to thousands of hours of BBC World Service, as well as study and reading about BBC World Service, does not contradict this.

I don't think there is a "fine line between public diplomacy and propaganda." The former is a gentler way of describing the latter. The real line is between journalism and public diplomacy. National governments understand why they should provide funds for public diplomacy, but it's vastly more difficult to convince them to fund a news service over which they have no editorial control.

The problem is in the description

Thank you for your comments, Kim Andrew Elliott. My concern as you point out, is with the way Tony Hall talked about the BBC World Service's priorities. I am in favour of expanding language services, and I think the cuts that have fallen on language services - at the BBC as at the VoA - are a huge mistake given the time and resources it takes to build audience trust. We can trace this back to the end of the Second World War and the Drogheda report. The end of language services to Western Europe in the belief that the end of the war made them redundant soon became a problem. I also agree that the FCO has always shaped language priorities, and it is only right that there should be a discussion about foreign policy considerations (although journalistic independence was compromised by the infiltration of the IRD during the Cold War). Where I depart company from Tony Hall is in specifying countries as targets. Thank you for your work in this area which I have followed for many years and which informed my work on international broadcasting.


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