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Is the BBC World Service Being Held Hostage by the BBC?

February 5, 2014

The USC Center on Public Diplomacy has just put out a publication on Britain’s International Broadcasting that  brings together a discussion of the current state of the BBC World Service by Rajesh Mirchandani and a report of some research on the BBC Hausa service by Abdullah Tasiu Abubakar.  The first of these is a quite well known BBC journalist and the latter has also worked for the Corporation. The BBC’s  Charter is up for renewal in 2016 so we can expect negotiations between the BBC and the government over the next 12 months and I can’t help reading this publication in the light of BBC strategy….

Mirchandani’s argument is that the switch from FCO funding of the BBC World Service to license fee funding will increase the credibility of the World Service and as such lead to an increase in the UK’s soft power.  In making this argument he’s recycling a key piece of international broadcasting theology: autonomy=credibility.  What’s ironic about this is that both Mirchandani and Abubakar present evidence in their contributions that show that audiences in Pakistan and northern Nigeria evaluate the credibility of the BBC in terms of their broader perception of the UK.  The finer points of institutional control aren’t that important to the viewer and listener.

Mirchandani doesn’t engage with the view expressed on this blog and by the Parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee that we are likely to see the subordination of the World Service to the imperatives of the BBC domestic services because of the switch to licence fee funding.  What he does do is argue that BBC Worldwide, its international commercial service (eg BBC America, BBC World), can help to sustain UK soft power.  This is true but given the non-fungibility of soft power not necessarily very helpful. What isn’t true is that Worldwide can act as a substitute for the non-commercial operations because Worldwide follows the money.  Certainly on recent foreign trips I’ve been surprised by the extent to which BBC World follows a much more US focused news agenda than BBC domestic services or the World Service.  The same pressures to succeed in the US that have turned Al-Jazeera English into Al-Jazeera America apply there.

At several points the paper points to the funding difficulties faced by the BBC World Service and in the context of the forthcoming negotiations with the government it’s tempting to see the World Service as a bargaining chip.

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