Is Digital Diplomacy the Old Radio?

Yesterday I came across a piece with the headline: Digital diplomacy is the new radio

This is the first paragraph

Digital Diplomacy is the new radio. Ever since politicians figured out that they could speak directly to ‘the masses’, we have had the phenomenon of public diplomacy. It became possible, via radio, to speak directly to people without having to go through official government channels. In the early 20th century, the Nazis and the Bolsheviks effectively used the radio to stoke revolutions in neighbouring countries. A hundred years later, with the advent of social media, public diplomacy has taken a new leap, to 140-character policy frameworks, thanks to Twitter.

There’s nothing new about arguing that social media is really a form of broadcasting but what struck a chord was the reference to the Nazis and the Bolsheviks.  What you found in totalitarian 1940s and 1950s broadcasting was a personalized, contentious and condescending tone that explained why the other lot were rubbish.  I’ve always been a bit puzzled by the Russian Embassy London Twitter account – it doesn’t seem to do much to improve the image of Russia or improve relations with the UK but I suddenly recognized the tone.

What is the BBC Up To?

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, 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.

The War Over the Reform of US International Broadcasting

I’m catching up with a pile of reports so sorry if I’m behind the curve with this one.

In March the Woodrow Wilson Center put out a report on Reassessing US International Broadcasting. It’s based on interviews with a whole bunch of US public diplomacy veterans and other experts and reaches the conclusion that the current system is broken with too much duplication and too much autonomy from the needs of US foreign policy.

The report can be read in tribal terms; the authors, S. Enders Wimbush and Elizabeth Portale, were both associated with RFE/RL, and a main target seems to be Voice of America and its claims of ‘journalistic autonomy’, indeed there are couple of rebuttals here and here, and the outgoing VoA director struck back at what he saw as RFE/RL lobbying.   I’ve never found the VoA argument particularly persuasive but in reading the report I was more interested in the image of what USIB is for and the world that it operates in. The report has lots of quotes from its interviewees – which are not directly attributed – and on one hand the report suggests a high degree of consensus but on the other there are some interested divergences of opinion that the authors don’t pick up on and some themes that are quite noticeable to a foreigner but probably not so obvious inside the Beltway.

There’s a tendency in the report to slip from discussions of ‘them’ to ‘us’: for instance from ‘strategic narrative’ to ‘the American narrative’ to ‘telling America’s story to world’ which leads to statements like

‘There is a narrative to be built on how this country is based on the distrust of power’

This makes sense in an American domestic conversation but really sounds bizarre outside.

Another informant opines that we ‘should offer a narrative about ourselves that represents ourselves in the most complicated and vibrant and contradictory and boisterous way possible’ That’s the limit of what is possible in international communications – to create complexity where there was a monolithic, monochrome image.   I think this is right but there’s also a tendency to slip into a very simple, ideological story  about American values. A lot of the history of US public diplomacy during the Cold War was about managing the gap that foreigners see between ‘values’ talk and American reality, for instance on issues of race.

The report is supportive of the current reform package going through Congress but there’s a strong view that the whole system is obsolete and ought to be rebuilt from scratch but while the report recognizes the changing media and political environment is says that this rethinking is job for universities and think tanks.

Regulating Foreign Public Diplomacy

Russian external communications have been in the news for obvious reasons. The announcement that RT are launching a special UK service has attracted comment particularly in light of the outstanding complaints against the channel over coverage of events in Ukraine. Given the previous decision of the UK TV regulator OFCOM to withdraw the license of the Iranian PD channel Press TV it wouldn’t be surprising if there’s going to be a space on the Freeview box before too long; already some people are shouting censorship.

This raises a broader issue. What is legitimate public diplomacy and what rights do states have to regulate it? Given the criticism of for instance Egypt, Russia or Hungary over restrictions on NGO funding what is a rational position on this that does not turn on whether we approve of a country or not?   It seems to me that there are two main ways that we can approach the question first, at an interstate level and then secondly, through a liberal perspective but then there a variety of state practices that would imply modifications to the liberal theory.

The interstate position would start from the assumption that states have the right to control what happens within their territory subject to international legal norms. Can we find a general right to conduct public diplomacy? Probably not although treaties with human rights components (eg Helsinki Final Act) by granting right to information are sometimes used. My reading of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations suggests a fairly narrow definition of diplomatic activity.   Cultural agreements between states can be used as a legal basis. Any agreement between states starts from an assumption of reciprocity and this provides quite a powerful lever. During the Cold War states on both sides would use formal cultural agreements to achieve their objectives. On the Communist side (and at points in the West) they could be used to limit ideological contamination. Also the West used reciprocity in exchanges to avoid a situation where they were shut out of Soviet labs while having to host floods of scientists from the East. During the 1950s the UK tried to avoid such agreements because they would create limits on the scope of interaction (Caute 2005, Richmond 2003) .

Post Cold War the application of reciprocity atrophied – but did not disappear – as FM rebroadcasting of the BBC became more common some countries demanded access to UK airwaves in return. More generally Western countries have accepted situations where their access to publics in authoritarian states is restricted but they do not impose reciprocal constraints – this would be true in relation to China, Russia and Middle Eastern states such as Saudi Arabia.

This is where the liberal argument comes in to play. Restrictions on the activities of foreign states can be seen as restrictions on freedom of speech. In the marketplace of ideas error will be corrected. During the Cold War the strength of Western societies was such that they did not jam Communist radio stations. From this perspective the application of reciprocity ie ‘we will let country x broadcast on our terrestrial TV system if the BBC can operate on the same basis’ is seen more as a threat to censor country X than as a way to expand access. Obviously non-liberal states do not buy this

However its worth noting though that many Western states do not operate unlimited free speech policies in at least two realms. Firstly, the regulatory regime for broadcasting and similar services often imposes restrictions on foreign ownership as well as standards such as impartiality. Secondly, they have regulations regarding foreign funding of political parties and to make lobbying more transparent. The point about both of these sets of restrictions is they start with an assumption that the democracy is about a particular demos and there are differential rights and responsibilities between the members and non-members.

This is more an attempt to set out the parameters of an issue than reach a solution – I’m not sure what my position is.   I think that the starting point is to make the connection between the international perspective on the issue and the liberal and democratic arguments which tend to look at it through a domestic lens.   A more consistent position would avoid the kind of ad hoc reaction to events abroad or relying on the communications regulator to apply rules developed for commercial channels to foreign international broadcasters.

Caute D (2005) The dancer defects : the struggle for cultural supremacy during the Cold War. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Richmond Y (2003) Cultural exchange & the Cold War : raising the iron curtain. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press.

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

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.

A Lesson from the BBC World Service for VoA?

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.



The World Service at 80: The Ambivalence of International Broadcasting

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

Press TV and the Regulation of International Broadcasting

A quick comment on the decision of OFCOM the UK communications regulator to revoke the license of the Iranian international  broadcaster Press TV  A lot of  contemporary international broadcasting depends on platforms  (VHF radio, cable TV, national satellite TV) that are under the control of the country they are broadcasting to.

This creates a double problem. The international broadcaster is subject to a regulatory regime that is primarily designed to enforce national broadcasting priorities. This creates the risk that the international broadcaster will fall foul of their license terms.  On the other hand an effort by the regulator to enforce license terms will like be perceived as a political action not as a regulatory.  Press TV has pointed to British and American government concerns about its operations in the Cablegate files which record a meeting between the US Embassy and the Foreign Office

¶4. (S) While lodging complaints at the ITU has symbolic value, Turner said her government recognizes the body has no enforcement authority. Therefore, HMG is looking at other ways to address the issue. HMG is exploring ways to limit the operations of the IRIB’s Press TV service, which operates a large bureau (over 80 staff) in London. However, UK law sets a very high standard for denying licenses to broadcasters. Licenses can only be denied in cases where national security is threatened, or if granting a license would be contrary to Britain’s obligations under international law. Currently, neither of these standards can be met with respect to Press TV, but if further sanctions are imposed on Iran in the coming months, a case may be able to be made on the second criterion.

¶5. (S) In the immediate term, HMG plans to lobby the French government to approach Eutelsat and press it to drop IRIB broadcasts from the Hotbird satellite. The IRIB broadcasts several channels from the satellite, both domestically (even most terrestrial TV channels in Iran are dependent on a satellite and repeaters) and internationally, so it is an important source of income for Eutelsat. While it would be unlikely for the company to agree to drop the IRIB broadcasts spontaneously, Turner believes it would be susceptible to an approach by the French government because of the cover it would gain from complying with an official government request. HMG would appreciate USG engagement with the government of France on this issue.

It could be argued that the operations of Press TV should be treated in political terms for instance by insisting on reciprocity in the treatment of international broadcasters. Press TV should be restricted in its operations as long as Western broadcasters to Iran are jammed.  Of course Iran is more bothered by the operation of Western broadcasters than the other way round and presumably wouldn’t agree to such a deal.

There’s an interesting mismatch between the international politics of the issue and the efforts of Western countries to depoliticize communications policy.  In the wake of the UK action there voices are being raised in the US about the actions of Press TV and other Iranian state funded broadcasters in the US.

Hu Jintao and Cultural Construction in China

The journal of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party recently published a speech by Hu Jintao on the development of China’s socialist culture, its cultural industries and its ‘cultural soft power’.  There’s a translation here – whatever the changes in China Communist Party rhetoric hasn’t changed: ‘we must implement the Party’s mass line’ etc.   Stephen Walt characterizes this as the party’s war on Harry Potter.  Part of this is the apparent internal threat implied by foreign culture but also the damage to China’s international position by its own lack of cultural industries that can compete.  Reading Hu’s speech the biggest problem seems to be the mismatch between the economic development of contemporary China and its cultural development (read legitimation of rule by the Party.

This emphasis on socialist culture is seen to be of the factors behind the current clampdown on  entertainment culture to accompany the assault on political dissent.  The government has ordered TV stations to reduce the amount of entertainment programming that they show and to encourage socialist values.  Getting rid of programmes like Super Girl is equivalent to banning X Factor in the UK (insert name of mega popular programme where you live.)

I think that notwithstanding its controls on media and the ‘great firewall of China’ the Communist Party is overestimating its ability to shape Chinese culture.  The history of  20th century ideologically driven regimes (and propaganda more broadly) shows that entertainment is a persistent problem because in general  people would prefer to be entertained than educated.  The Nazis, The Soviets, The Saudis (and Lord Reith of the BBC) were all forced to modify their cultural offerings by the fact of competition with foreign broadcasters.  In each case the direction of movement was towards more entertainment in an effort to hold on to their audiences regardless of restrictions on reception of foreign broadcasts.

The point has sometimes been made that the ‘great firewall of China’ is not a massive obstacle to determined netizens but relatively few people are motivated to overcome the obstacle.  You wonder whether taking away entertainment programming will provide a stronger incentive to look for foreign material or for Chinese citizens to make their own.  It will be interesting to see how long it is before Super Girl’s younger sister returns to the screen.

Karen Hughes in Cairo September 2005

The Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten has its own set of the Cablegate files and has released some cables that Wikileaks hasn’t put out yet.  In this I spotted this account of a meeting in September 2005 between then Under Secretary of State for Public Affairs and Public Diplomacy Karen Hughes and the Egyptian Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif.

Some interesting points – first advice on what the US should do to improve its image.

Nazif said that concrete action was needed to improve America´s image. Post-disengagement Gaza offered a real opportunity for such action. Positive change in Gaza would go a long way toward improving America´s image. He noted three things the U.S. could do: 1) support Abu Mazen as he tried to consolidate power; 2) build Gaza´s infrastructure, focusing on projects with quick results; and 3) assure the Palestinians that Gaza disengagement was not the end, but the beginning. The Palestinians needed to see a path for continued progress toward a Palestinian state. Currently the message to the Palestinians was “prove yourself in Gaza first,” which was not going over well. A better message would be that disengagement was a good first step and Gaza could form the nucleus of a Palestinian state.

Hughes pressed Nazif to remove Hizbollah’s Al Manar TV channel from the Nilesat TV satellite service – Nazif declined to respond.

Hughes pressed Nazif to allow Radio Sawa to be broadcast in Egypt and pointed to Congressional pressure to link aid to Egypt to this matter.  Nazif responded that Hughes was asking Egypt to break its own laws.

Nazif complained that it had become more difficult for Egyptians to get US visas and that the US should fund additional exchange places – particularly as he’d benefitted from the International Visitor Programme.

It’s an interesting exchange that contains some familiar arguments about public diplomacy. – the US pushing for action on broadcasting, Egypt suggesting that actions might be more helpful and at the same time fending off suggestions about political reforms.