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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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