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”.
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”.
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.