The World Service at 80: The Ambivalence of International Broadcasting

February 29, 2012

The BBC World Service is celebrating its 80th anniversary today.  I was wondering what to say about this when I heard the Director of the Service, Peter Horrocks being interviewed on the domestic service Radio 4.

In commenting on the continuing relevance of the service he pointed to the Iranian government’s jamming of the service and harassment of the families of Persian service staff

 ‘…it’s because the Iranian government sees it as such a threat.  And in a report from the Iranian government, it described it as so dangerous because it’s impartial not because it’s propagandist or oppositionist but because it tells the truth as it is.’

This is simultaneously an impeccable statement of a liberal theory of journalism and  a state funded  broadcaster boasting about upsetting a foreign government that he’s been pointed towards  by the Foreign Office.

This sums up the history of the World Service in a couple of lines.

Happy Birthday!

You can listen to the whole interview here



  1. I seem to remember a quote, but can’t attribute it – a story which the powerful want to hide is just what good journalism should investigate or report. Journalism that does so from abroad may be more likely to look suspicious than journalism that does so at home, but that should be no blanket suspicion either.

    I think the best thing for the British – and the German, for that matter – governments and parliamentarians would be to back (i. e. to fund) their foreign radio services without strings attached, and to leave the questions to a panel of respected journalists from the newspaper sector. The problem is that foreign broadcasters in Western countries are under pressure to justify their budgets these days, and much more so than twenty or thirty years ago. Even if the work within the organizations should leave little to be desired despite these pressures, they should still arouse suspicion. A liberal democracy should either fund an external service for making it an international showcase of good practice (that kind of “propaganda” would make sense to me), or it should dump it, and spend the money on something more useful.

    Footnote: compared to Deutsche Welle or the Voice of America, I believe the BBC is quite good – and I tuned to the World Service regularly when it was available on 648 kHz medium wave.

    • I think that you touch on a good point here – that in the end the impact of international broadcasting depends on what the audience thinks of it. However much journalists worry about credibility it is actually the audience that makes this judgement.

      The BBC has editorial independence (and in the UK people trust the BBC rather more than they do the newspapers) but up till now the funding for the World Service comes from the Foreign Office which gives it a strong say over where the service broadcasts to. I think that there is always a negotiation between the FO and the BBC but when you get the government providing extra funding for a Farsi language TV service to Iran it’s clear that there is a foreign policy agenda at work.

  2. Can’t find the interview under the link in your post, but there’s a podcast available here, for the time beingWhere next for the World Service? Wed, 29 Feb 12.

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