Archive for September, 2015

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National Public Diplomacy…Systems, Machines, Assemblages, Fields….?

September 18, 2015

Over the last few years Brian Hocking (eg 2013) has introduced the concept of the national diplomatic system – the idea that ministries of foreign affairs exist in the context of a set of other agencies that are involved in foreign affairs. A while back I argued that it is important to analyse national systems of public diplomacy holistically. What I had in mind was the tendency, for instance, to discuss the British Council and the Alliance Française as if they were directly equivalent, rather than the latter being much more of a specialist language organization than the former.  From my perspective it makes if you look at ‘national public diplomacy systems’ as a whole you understand how different countries do things in different ways and how the parts fit together.

When I presented this at a conference Eytan Gilboa objected to the term ‘system’ because it made things sound too organized. The funny thing was I nearly didn’t use the term on precisely those grounds. I had thought about ‘network’ but given my propensity to label everything ‘network’ I’d restrained myself. I’d also thought about ‘assemblage’ which, to an English speaker at least carries a connotation of being thrown together, randomness and likely to fall apart (which actually seems a  fairly  accurate description of the situation in many countries).but. It also seemed a bit pretentious.* I toyed for a bit with ‘field’ in the Bourdieuan sense while I thought that this was good for thinking about the relationships between different organizations I was uncomfortable with the idea that a field can be an actor.  Maybe the public diplomacy ‘ensemble’ or collective’ would work?

More recently I’ve come across the idea of ‘la machine diplomatique‘, this originally comes from the work of Jean-Baptiste Duroselle (1979) on French diplomacy during the interwar period but has been taken up by other French scholars to indicate that diplomacy has multiple components (Frank 2003, Arthus 2012).

I think that the idea of the collective nature of diplomacy or public diplomacy is an important idea but it’s important to have the capacity to recognize  that the parts of whatever we call it don’t always fit together very well and the relationships between them vary with changing situations.

*Not that that had ever stopped me before.

Arthus WW (2012) La Machine diplomatique française en Haïti (1945-1958). Paris: L’Harmattan.

Duroselle J-B (1979) La decadence 1932-1939. Paris: Imprimerie Nationale.

Frank R (2003) La machine diplomatique culturelle française après 1945, Relations internationales, 115: 325–348.

Hocking B (2013) The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the National Diplomacy System, in Kerr P and Wiseman G (eds) Diplomacy in a Globalizing World: Theories and Practices, New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 123–40.

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What is the BBC Up To?

September 15, 2015

The BBC recently issued a document on its future. This is part of an ongoing debate in the UK over the renewal of the BBC’s charter – a process that happens every 10 years. This was accompanied by media stories discussing the BBC’s plans for broadcasts to Russia and North Korea – which in turn have attracted a degree of commentary.

What is slightly surprising about this is that if you turn to the future of the BBC document the World Service is the focus of one page out of 99. The page is  headed ‘we want to invest in the world service’   – to which the question must be why don’t you just get on with it then? The explanation is ‘there are limits to how much British households can be expected to fund news for others around the world to consume, despite the benefits.’  Hmm – the BBC was happy enough to take the license fee (tax) and, before it took over funding of the World Service,  extra money from the tax payer as well so this seems unusually solicitious of the British public.  What is the BBC proposing to do?  The entire agenda is reproduced below:

A bigger digital presence in Russian through a new digital service on platforms such as YouTube and the Russian equivalent Rutube, together with TV bulletins for neighbouring states. We would also start a feasibility study for a satellite TV channel for Russia

A daily news programme, seven days a week, for North Korea, initially delivered through Short Wave, and news for Ethiopia and Eritrea on Medium Wave and Short Wave

New or extended digital and mobile offers in India and Nigeria

More regionalised content on the BBC Arabic Service to better serve audiences across the region, and target new audiences, with increased coverage of North Africa and the Gulf.

Some of this will cost money but the first two look like headline fodder.  So the BBC needs more  money but the aim is not to simply get a grant from the government but

We would aim for any increase in public funding for the World Service to be matched by external income for our other global news services over the Charter. This means commercial ambition; seeking revenue from audiences outside the UK; and being open to funding from governments and civil society.….So our ambitions must be commercially self-sufficient.  ..To do that, bbc.com will have to experiment, exploring new advertising deals, subscription services, live events, syndication packages and commercial opportunities across all platforms and languages. The proposition, though, is simple: access for advertisers to a global audience; and a product for consumers that is the most trusted and reliable news service in the world

Essentially this is a proposal – we will do something that will be helpful to the British government if the government allows us greater commercial freedom. This is intended to further blur the distinction between the BBC’s traditional publically funded external broadcasting and its commercially funded services.  Since the government refused to fund the development of external BBC television services back in the 1980s it has been in the interests of both sides to blur the distinction, the BBC seeks to coopt the history and reputation of the ‘classical’ external services while the government likes to trumpet the footprint of the BBC globally as part of  British ‘soft power’.

The language of soft power further obscures because both commercial success and the support of  democratization in a repressive regime can be claimed as part of soft power.   The more the BBC pursues  a commercially driven strategy the more the potential divergence between foreign policy goals and those of the Corporation.   As a commercial actor the BBC produces content that will appeal to its key target markets (BBC World Television in English has a very US centric view of the world) and will seek to maximize revenue for commercial partners by limiting access to its content – for instance you can go to the website of France 24 (its English service is extremely underrated), DW, Russia Today and watch them live – you can’t do that with BBC World. The irony is that is you want to watch a British television news service on the web from outside the UK you can – it’s called Sky News

My take away is that the British government needs to recognize that outside the UK the BBC wants to operate mainly as a commercial actor (and one that has recently been rapped over the knuckles for showing sponsored content from that failed to meet impartiality standards) and it needs to consider the extent to which UK foreign policy interests and BBC commercial interests overlap. I would also recommend that the government has a hard look at the quality of BBC external news programming versus competitors like France 24, DW and Al-Jazeera English – BBC World Television often looks pretty sad in comparison.   The government needs to have its own view on UK external broadcasting and it can’t trust the BBC to tell it what that view should be.

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Nation-Branding Lite? The GREAT Campaign

September 1, 2015

Since 2012 the UK has been running promotional campaigns in selected countries under the strap line Britain is GREAT. The GREAT campaign is primarily focused on attracting investment, tourists and students as well as pushing British exports. Between 2012 and 2015 £113.5m has been spent and in a newish report the National Audit Office estimates that it has so far provided a return on investment of £1.2Bn – which is pretty good going since the overall target for the campaign is £1.7-1.9Bn by 2019-20.   The NAO is an organization dedicated to demonstrating that public money could have been spent better so it’s quite surprising how happy they are with the view that this is good value for money.

It’s also interesting to see that the report cheerfully uses branding language to discuss the campaign but in a couple of ways the GREAT campaign is a retreat from high concept nation-branding to a more traditional promotional campaign. In its classical form nation-branding is supposed to grow out of a consensual view of a core identity or narrative. This core narrative also needs to be consistent with the way that the brand will be experienced. Branding projects are frequently tripped up by the fact that there isn’t consensus or consistency. Where countries have achieved that consensus it has been as the end result of a long period of discussion (eg Sweden or Finland) which is rarely achievable. The GREAT Campaign has got round this by simply identifying a set of themes that can be used to appeal to different publics – eg heritage AND innovation – no need to make difficult choices and from the point of view of the NAO it seems to be working.