Investing in our soft power assets – the BBC World Service & the Spending Review

by | Nov 8, 2015


This is the third in a series of blogs on the upcoming Spending Review, and how Britain maximises its influence and soft power across the world at a time of declining budgets. This focuses on the BBC World Service, “Britain’s gift to the world”. Find the others with the following links: FCO, British Council.

Other UK soft power assets fall into the “unprotected” category and are at risk of cuts. Since the Chatham House / YouGov Survey began polling in 2010, BBC World Service radio and TV broadcasting has been seen by UK opinion-formers as the UK’s top foreign policy tool, consistently ranking higher than all other foreign policy “assets”.

Broadcasting to 210m people every week and with a budget less than half that of BBC2, the World Service faces increasing challenges in the form of domestic and international competition, technical change, and a legacy of underinvestment. FCO funding was cut by 16% in 2010, leading to the departure of about a fifth of bbcits staff. This has had an impact – in 2005 the organisation provided services in 43 languages, now down to 28. In contrast, there is increased competition – following a 2007 directive from Premier Hu Jintao, China has been investing heavily in soft power assets with state journalists now pumping out content in more than 60 languages. Lacking first mover advantage, it is clear that competitors have strategic ambitions. Yu-Shan Wu of the South African Institute for International Affairs comments, “Since the Beijing Olympics, we have seen increased efforts to provide China’s perspective on global affairs, signalling relations with Africa have moved beyond infrastructure development to include a broadcasting and a people-to-people element. There are now regular exchanges between Chinese and African journalists, and it is clear that China is stepping up and laying the foundations for a more concerted public diplomacy effort in the region.”

From April last year, the World Service ceased to be funded by the FCO, and is now resourced by a share of the BBC licence fee. Although its budget was increased by the BBC in 2014 (up by £6.5m to £245m), the BBC itself faces many of its own funding challenges. In July, the Chancellor called on the organisation to make savings and make ‘a contribution’ to the budget cuts Britain is facing. Ministers asked the BBC to shoulder the £750m burden of paying free licence fees for the over-75s, and later that month unveiled a green paper on the future of the broadcaster which questioned if it should continue to be “all things to all people”. In the same month, the organisation announced that 1,000 jobs would go to cover a £150m shortfall in frozen licence fee income.

The World Service is somewhat insulated from wider BBC cuts, as the BBC has to seek the Foreign Secretary’s approval to close an existing language service (or launch a new one). Nevertheless, in early September, Director-GeneraWorldsNewsroom1l Tony Hall made the first of a series of responses to the green paper. Making a “passionate defence of the important role the BBC plays at home and abroad”, he unveiled proposals for a significant expansion of the World Service, including; a satellite TV service or YouTube channel for Russian speakers, a daily news programme on shortwave for North Korea, expansion of the BBC Arabic Service (with increased MENA coverage), and increased digital and mobile offerings for Indian and Nigerian markets. Interestingly, the proposals sought financial support from the government, suggesting matched funding, conditional upon increased commercialisation of the BBC’s Global News operation outside the UK.

More on the expansion plans here.

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    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.


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