Archive for February, 2011

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Three Rules for Understanding the BBC’s Global Strategy

February 28, 2011

A lot has been written about the cuts to the BBC World Service.  I haven’t written about this to any great extent because I haven’t had the time to really dig into what’s going on. I have to say that I was a bit puzzled as to how a 16% cut in funding translates into a 25% cut in services.

In this context the BBC Trust (this is the public body that oversees the operation of the BBC) has approved a document on the BBC’s Global Strategy. If you are not thoroughly steeped in BBC organization and language this is not easy to get you head round.  The key points for me are that BBC journalism is the primary global offering and this is driven by public service values but within this there is a distinction between foreign language (vernacular) services and the English language offering –

For the vernacular offer (where addressing ‘need’ is prioritised over driving ‘influence’) the public mission means playing an essential role in securing the UK’s long term national interests by showcasing values which the UK treasures and wishes to promote (e.g. a free media independent of Government). In this way the BBC can indirectly serve the UK’s interest in terms of international development and security.
For the BBC’s international English Language services, the public purpose means prioritising ‘influence’ over ‘need’: Broadcasting in the world’s more influential language, in the name of one of the most respected broadcasters, delivers significant influence on the global arena.

Influence over need? I’m not sure what they are getting at here.

The second major point is that non-journalism activities are going to be commercially driven within the limits of protecting the BBC brand.  Thirdly, there will be closer integration between domestic and international operations.

I’m not going to dissect this in detail but instead I’ll offer three rules for understanding the BBC. These are in part based on the fact that a few years ago I spent quite a lot of time with BBC management.

1. The BBC is an autonomous organization with its own interests. The BBC is an independent organization with its own identity and interests it simply can’t be read as an instrument of government policy.  Like other organizations it seeks to protect its interests. In terms of negotiating with the government it will seek to secure the best deal for itself and then interpret and implement that deal in the most favourable way possible.

2. The key interest is the protection of the license fee. The key interest is the preservation of the license fee (essentially a tax on the ownership of televisions).  This forces it to act in two directions.  Firstly, it needs to maintain a certain level of cordiality with the government because the government sets the level of the fee. Secondly, it needs to maintain a certain level of satisfaction among the license fee payers( that is the British public) because growing disatisfaction will undermine the willingness of the government to raise or even maintain the license fee.  Under the new funding arrangements the World Service will be funded by the license fee. International audiences don’t pay the license fee so when push comes to shove they will not be the first priority.

3. The BBC uses communications strategically. When the BBC was created one of the first six employees that Lord Reith hired was a Director of Public Relations.  Given the respect for the BBC in the UK and around the world BBC PR/Corporate Relations  has to be taken seriously as a political actor. So assume that anything that the BBC says about the BBC needs to be critically evaluated.

Where does this leave the BBC’s global strategy?  The BBC has sought to shape the impact of cuts in funding to suit its own agenda while trying to minimize its own role in choosing what to cut. (Was the decision to scrap the Hindi shortwave service made in the expectation that the political fallout would unlock extra funding?)  In the longer run the dependence on the license fee makes the World Service vulnerable to higher priority domestic operations.  The limit on the squeeze is that the World Service is an important part of the BBC brand both domestically and internationally.  Taking these together the future of the World Service is secure but the danger is that the World Service ends up as a symbol rather than as a dynamic part of the organization.

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US Public Diplomacy: What Problem? Part 2

February 25, 2011

Following up on the Muslim Public Affairs Committee UK’s attribution of the upheavals in the Middle East to US PD2.0

Given the amount of time that the PD blogosphere spends agonizing about the state of US PD and soft power it might be worth adding that  the US is number 1 in the Nation Brands Index, it’s number 4 in the Country Brand Index.  In the Pew Global Attitudes responses are up around the world…

Maybe the scale of the problems isn’t that big.

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US Public Diplomacy: What Problem Part 1.

February 24, 2011

Here in the public diplomacy blogosphere there seems to be some doubt about US public diplomacy…but these doubts aren’t universally shared.  Apparently all of that PD2.0 that I periodically express scepticism about works just fine and is behind all of the upheavals in the Middle East says this press release from the Muslim Public Affairs Committee UK.  James Glassman please stand up and take a bow.

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Vichy Radio and Rhetorical Entrapment

February 24, 2011

Yesterday Kay Chadwick from the University of Liverpool gave a very interesting seminar in the Institute on Philippe Henriot. Henriot  spent six months as the Vichy French Minister of Information during the first half of 1944.  Henriot gave a new impetus to Vichy communications – he personally broadcast twice a day and in particular directly engaged the Free French of Radio Londres. It was this duel that was the focus of Kay’s talk.  Both sides sought to undermine the credibility and legitimacy of the other.   The monthly reports on public opinion compiled for the Vichy government commented on the public fascination with the duel and the fact that Vichy’s broadcasts were at least attracting public attention.

In listening to the talk I was reminded of the post Habermasian arguments about the force of rhetoric in international politics made by by authors like Thomas Risse or Frank Schimmelfenig. By engaging in debate with the Free French Henriot was implicitly agreeing to be bound by rules of argument.  While Henriot never openly admitted defeat at points he abandoned lines of attack in implicit acknowledgement of an effective rebuttal.  A notorious anti-semite Henriot challenged the right of Pierre Dac as a jew to speak for France  but he abandoned the line of attack after Radio Londres pointed out that Henriot’s family came from Alsace-Lorraine and that he had nothing to say about the German annexation of the territory essentially that Henriot couldn’t speak for France because he was German.  When the rural resistance, the Maquis,  was driven from the plateau of Glieres in Haute Savoie in March 1944 Henriot claimed this as a victory for the Vichy paramilitary force the Milice.  Once Radio Londres was able to report that in fact the Milice had failed and that the plateau had been captured by a German force, Henriot abandoned the topic.

In the end the notoriously unpopular Henriot was assassinated by the resistance.  While the duel attracted attention it’s not clear how much of an impact it actually had on the French public.  It may be that the attraction was more out of fascination with the debate itself.  Nevertheless a fascinating perspective on a little known topic.

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US Support for Public Education in Brazil

February 22, 2011

A couple of days ago I commented on the need for public diplomacy scholarship to bridge the gap between the macro level of International Relations and the micro level of Communications.  This translation is not just an intellectual problem because  organizations struggle to link strategic priorities with what happens on the ground.  With this thought in mind I came across this 2009 cable from the US Embassy in Brasilia discussing activities designed to support public education in Brazil.

I think what is interesting about this cable is that it details a clear rationale for the programme of work and that the elements of the programme reinforce each other.  For instance alumni of youth exchange programmes help to provide training for English language teachers.  This is also a programme that that supports Brazilian government objectives while advancing US priorities. The work is conducted through a network of Binational Centres and in collaboration with Brazilian government agencies and NGOs.

In total you can see a programme of work that promotes English language teaching in the context of an engagement with the US educational system in a way that  promotes American models and linkages and thus helps to support US influence in Brazil.  This is relational PD in action.  I think that an important point is that constructing a programme like this is not about identifying a message but about  organizing mutually beneficial activities.

From my point of view the Cablegate materials are most interesting because of the nuts and bolts sense of diplomacy at work and this is something that is valuable for scholars regardless of their disciplinary background.

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Chinese Soft Power

February 21, 2011

Last week I went to Amazon and searched for soft power –  there are a stack of forthcoming books on soft power many of them about China.  Given my own scepticism about the usefulness of the concept I was interested to see that Shaun Breslin of Warwick University has just produced a paper on ‘The Soft Notion of China’s “Soft Power”‘ critiquing the lack of precision in the use of the concept.  It’s available here.

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Colin Alexander on China and Central America

February 21, 2011

Colin Alexander is another of our PhD students, he’s working on the competition between China and Taiwan in Central America.  He’s got a post at the USC Center for Public Diplomacy Blog on China, Costa Rica and Oscar Arias’s pursuit of the office of UN Secretary General