A Lesson from the BBC World Service for VoA?

July 5, 2013

US international broadcasting seems to be in a permanent state of meltdown;  I’ve given up on trying to keep track of the posts on BBG Watch.  I was interested to see reports on the testimony given to the House of Representatives last week – which given that the witnesses couldn’t agree doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.

Gary Thomas, a long time VoA journalist, correctly identifies the core of the problem in the multiple roles of US International Broadcasting in particular the tension between public diplomacy (that is broadcasting is an instrument) and journalism.  Interestingly there’s a degree of slippage in the piece between journalism and international broadcasting – this is striking because most of his criticisms of VoA are about dumbing down as a result of a management imported from the commercial sector not about the instrumentalization by diplomats.  His solution is that the VoA should be centralized around a newsroom overseen by a journalist.  If the station focuses on journalism everything will be fine.

The problem with this is that non-commercial international broadcasting (like public diplomacy in general) is constructed around multiple objectives.  Firstly, we would like an audience.  Secondly, we would like to do something for or to that audience beyond just getting them to listen, watch or click.   The identity of our intended audience is a function of what we want to do to or for them.  The instrumental aspect is probably necessary to justify the funds that we need to broadcast at all.   These tensions are inherent in the activity.  The key step is recognize that they exist and then work out how to manage them.  Pretending that they don’t exist is just sowing the seeds for more trouble down the line.

In this context have a look at how the BBC World Service squares the circle.  Last week the BBC Trust – ie the regulatory board for the BBC issued a draft of the license that that the BBC will operate under when the Trust takes over funding of the World Service from the FCO.  There’s also a position paper explaining things in a bit more detail.

Have a look at the ‘remit’ from the license:

BBC World Service broadcasts and distributes accurate, impartial and independent news and content in a range of genres aimed primarily at users outside the UK. The editorial agenda of the World Service should provide a global perspective on the world, not one based upon any national or commercial interest. BBC World Service should contribute to the BBC’s international news mission to address the global gap in provision of trusted international news, by providing accurate, impartial and independent news and analysis of the highest quality. In developing countries the World Service aims, through journalism that contributes to accountability and g ood governance, to improve the welfare and economic development of citizens. It should aim to provide a distinctive service tailored to its audience’s need, and maximise reach of all services in their target markets, subject to value for money. BBC World Service should make a significant contribution to promoting the BBC’s public purposes.

What’s interesting here is the notion of the ‘global news gap’.  Why do you have a shortage of good news coverage? Either because poverty means that your local broadcasters don’t have the resources to do the job or because you have an authoritarian government.  Then look at what journalism is supposed to do in developing countries – contribute to accountability and good governance.

The remit brings together three things; we’re a journalistic organization; but our journalism is part of an organization that has some non-journalistic purposes; and we’d better make sure that we get an audience.  How you balance out these three things on a day to day basis requires work but a remit like this starts from the premise that there isn’t a simple answer.

My advice for US international broadcasting?  Start with a purpose, generate a strategy and then look at the organization.





  1. Start with a purpose, generate a strategy and then look at the organization.

    Alright – but I can’t see any other main purpose than state-of-the-art journalism. That alone may not define the range of topics, because listeners, viewers or readers in the target areas may simply not take interest in some of the topics, and because, indeed, those who fund foreign broadcasting want to see “results”.

    But if Gary Thomas’ demand doesn’t outweigh the other two, I doubt there will be too many listeners. Usually, an audience likes to see people doing what these people are good at – and, of course, doing something that serves them – the audience.

    This would reflect positively on the country of origin, too – even if, or particularly if the broadcasts aren’t shy of criticizing the country’s foreign, trade, or military policies.

    Obviously, people at home may be less fond of that – and they decide about the budget.

  2. Sure – journalism can be the main purpose but there are multiple possible journalisms – for instance in the difference between VoA and RFE/RL – that are driven by differences in the imagined audience and their needs. Once you define the audience you can make a start in balancing the different pressures but I get the impression that some people in the debate around USIB take a fundamentalist stance on ‘journalism’ as sufficient in itself to defined the parameters of international broadcasting.

  3. I think I’m beginning to see your point. However, I think the BBC World Service has had an advantage, compared to either VoA, or Deutsche Welle, or any/most other organizations, for being seen as “impartial” anyway.

    I see no domestic organization in the U.S. you could attach VoA to. The big organizations are commercial, and NPR is already publicly funded – more of that might tarnish their image at home.

    And you’ve got Lord Patten. Not replicable elsewhere, I guess. Can’t think of too many radio apparatchiks these days who identify with what they are supposed to do.

    • Another question: what does maximising reach of all services in their target markets, subject to value for money mean? Whose value?

      • That’s the British public sector for you. We’re not quite sure why we’re doing whatever it is but we have to show that we’re doing in the most efficient way possible!

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