About Ryan Gawn

Ryan Gawn is Head of International Communications at ActionAid International and Director of Stratagem International, a strategic political affairs consultancy. He is a Council Member of the Royal Institute for International Affairs (Chatham House). Currently based in South Africa, he has worked overseas with the FCO, DFID, British Council and the UN. See more here.

A bold Beeb – ambitious plans for the BBC World Service

The BBC World Service is often seen as one of the UK’s great soft power assets. Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan agrees, describing the world’s largest international broadcaster as “perhaps Britain’s greatest gift to the world”.

BBC satellite dishes

Tomorrow will see Tony Hall, BBC Director-General, set out the first of a series of responses to the government’s green paper on the future of the broadcaster – a “passionate defence of the important role the BBC plays at home and abroad”. The green paper opened up plenty of issues for discussion (aims, funding, license fee, digital approach etc.), but tomorrow’s response is expected to focus on some rather bold expansion proposals for the World Service. Bold because the BBC has already been asked to make cuts and shoulder the £750m burden of paying free licence fees for the over-75s. And also bold because they are explicit in seeking to counter the challenge of state-sponsored rivals, such as Qatar’s Al-Jazeera, Russia’s RT and China’s CCTV.

“This is about Britain’s place in the world…   …It is above the politics of the debates about the BBC’s future. It has to be a national priority. Other news outlets are growing globally and many do not share our traditions and values. We have a strong commitment to uphold global democracy through accurate, impartial and independent news.”

A cursory glance at the expansion plans give a good indication of priorities / challenges:

  • satellite TV service or YouTube channel for Russian speakers
  • daily news programme for North Korea
  • expansion of the BBC Arabic Service (with increased MENA coverage)
  • increased digital and mobile offerings in India and Nigeria

But how real are these challenges? Very, actually, especially if you, like 68% of opinion formers, consider the  World Service to be one of the UK’s most important foreign policy assets, or are concerned about the strategic decline of the UK’s soft power.

Firstly, the World Service faces a legacy of underinvestment. With a budget less than half that of BBC2, FCO funding was cut by 16% in 2010, leading to the departure of about a fifth of its staff. This has had an impact – in 2005 the organisation provided services in 43 languages, now down to 28. Some services have been ceased, and at one stage, audiences of 10 million in India were under threat for the sake of £900,000.


Secondly, and more importantly, the organisation faces increased competition with the news / information arena seeing increased investment by state-sponsored broadcasters – a “soft power battle”. The BBC sounded the alarm bell in January with its Future of News report highlighting the disparity in investment seen elsewhere – “China, Russia and Qatar are investing in their international channels in ways that we cannot match, but none has our values and our ability to investigate any story no matter how difficult.” Compared to the World Service’s £245m budget (2014), both competitor investment and aspiration levels are high. China’s CCTC received nearly $7bn to expand global operations and both RT (previously named Russia Today, the Kremlin-backed news service, $300m budget), and Qatar’s Al Jazeera ($100m budget) recently launched channels targeting UK / English-language audiences. Before being named UK Culture Secretary, John Whittingdale said it was “frightening” that the World Service was being “outgunned massively by the Russians and the Chinese”. 1

The report also warned of ‘dangerous and disparate’ threats to independent and reliable world news from other well-funded state broadcasters, arguing that cuts would reduce the UK’s influence, “The World Service faces a choice between decline and growth…   …If the UK wants the BBC to remain valued and respected, an ambassador of Britain’s values and an agent of soft power in the world, then the BBC is going to have to commit to growing the World Service and the government will have to recognise this.”

With ministerial discussions on the Autumn spending review already well underway, we can expect further lobbying and positioning in advance of the November announcement on departmental settlements. More on this in my forthcoming Chatham House article on how Britain maximises its influence across the world at a time of declining resources.

Are we neglecting our soft power assets?

Osborne just doesn’t make the cut

As Chancellor George Osborne thanks the London Olympics for taking him off the front pages, he might want to take advantage of the breathing space to have an image makeover.

One colleague who may be able to provide some tips is his sharp-suited Chief Secretary, Danny Alexander. The former Chief of Staff to Nick Clegg, Alexander’s distinctive style and dress sense have made him something of a fashion hero in the more unlikeliest of places – Pakistan.

Sharp-suited Danny Alexander MP adorns a store front in Islamabad

As you can see, the owner of Wazir tailors in downtown Islamabad was in no doubt that Alexander trumped Osborne in the style stakes, using this timeless image taken from the 2010 Spending Review for his store front, with Osborne sadly not making the cut.

WHAM is back! And it really does Win Hearts and Minds in Afghanistan

Remember that “terrible phrase”, Winning Hearts And Minds (WHAM)? Using development programs as a tool for counterinsurgency? PRTs and Money as a Weapons System? So last decade, right? Well it’s back, and there’s some new evidence to show that it might actually work – for certain things, and when done right. From Afghanistan, of course. It’s only taken 10 years.

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