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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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