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

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.

DFID and fragile states

For DFID – the heart of yesterday’s defence review was a new commitment to spend 30% of Britain’s development cash on “priority national security and fragile states”. This box explains what that means in cash terms…

Alex and I argued for this policy in our Chatham House paper. DFID, we wrote, should be turned into the world leader in tackling the problems of fragile states.

But there was a quid pro quo.  Fragile states need lots and lots of high-level expertise – not oodles of dosh. But DFID is probably going to be forced to make job cuts as a result of the spending review. So it’s going to have more money, tougher challenges to deal with, but fewer people. Something has to give.

The solution, we argued, was for the government to “make it clear that where a poor country’s main need is financial, the UK will not necessarily maintain a country office – but will instead reduce transaction costs by partnering with other effective donors, or simply channeling funds through multilateral institutions such as the World Bank.”

So far, the coalition has seemed fairly cool on the multilateral system – but if it wants to do a good job in fragile states, this has to change. Clearly, the FCO and MOD are hoping they will directly spend a big chunk of the UK’s development money, but DFID still needs to think hard about how best to deploy is scarcest resource – the expertise of its dwindling staff…

National Security Strategy – or selling British business

Beyond sharing the ‘age of uncertainty’ title, the UK’s new national security strategy overlaps considerably with the Chatham House report on British foreign policy that Alex and I published just after the election.

The Cameron/Clegg introduction is based on the same understanding of global challenges as set out in the first chapter of our report. The strategy is based on a risk management approach (good) and a wish to build resilience (even better – the Conservatives were exploring resilience as a theme during their time in opposition).

But where we diverge from the government is in the proposed response. Like the government, Alex and I are interested in countering direct immediate and direct threats to British citizens (the core national security agenda). We are also keen to support the weak links in the global system – fragile and failing states (the core development agenda).

But our third area of strategic focus centres on an attempt to persuade others that urgent efforts are needed to rebuild the global system itself – rather than to try and wait out globalization’s ‘long crisis’. For us, this is the heart of modern foreign policy.

Although the NSS talks a good game about preventing risks before they hit the UK, it does little to flesh out what it means by ‘shaping the global environment’ to manage risks. And the FCO seems to be fast losing interest in this agenda. Instead, we are promised that foreign policy can be turned into a money-earner and that “the [overseas] networks we use to build our prosperity we will also use to build our security.”

The implications of this commercial focus aren’t spelled out in the strategy, but what it means in practice is that Embassies are going to be judged increasingly by the time they spend trying to win contracts for British businesses. My reaction to this prospect is visceral (lots of swearing and Basil Fawlty-style leaping around). Here, though, are some more measured objections:

  1. I don’t think it works – big business has sophisticated networks overseas and there are many private sector providers of risk and political analysis. Why on earth would the Ambassador be decisive in sealing the deal – let alone one of his lesser minions? And if our Ambassadors are such commercial whizzes, why on earth wouldn’t businesses want to pay for their services (or for that matter, poach them from their poorly paid jobs)?
  2. It’s an essentially zero-sum activity – pitting the UK against its allies precisely in those parts of the world where we need to forge a common cause. Partnership gets fairly short shrift in the NSS – but the UK’s most pressing problems will only be solved through collective action. Try and wish that away if you like, but it’s a cold, hard fact.
  3. Business objectives will always clash with other more important goals. Business lobbies trump free trade agreements, financial regulation, climate deals, tough lines on corrupt states etc. As we have seen, many boards would happily screw the global economy if it meant meeting the next quarter’s targets. Thatcher did sterling work getting the state out of business. Some day we need a PM with the guts to prise business out of the state.
  4. Scandal is inevitable. The NSS can talk about British values as much as it likes, but, soon enough, politicians and officials will start to cross ethical lines. Before you know it, the Conservatives will have another Arms to Iraq on their hands – or be embroiled in a BAE-style mess. Try telling us that ‘our core values are not open to question’ then.

I expect the commercial focus will prove to be a fad – to be swept away when the next big international shock hits our shores. But the diversion is damaging, because it has stopped the coalition getting serious about global issues. And that, I predict, will prove to be a big mistake…