Posts Tagged ‘BBC World Service’


MPs Don’t Trust the BBC on the World Service

April 8, 2014

At the beginning of last week the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee put out their latest report on the future of the BBC World Service and consistent with previous reports they remain deeply sceptical about the future of the World Service now that funding responsibility has passed to the BBC (ie from License Fee income rather than a grant via the FCO)

What is particularly exercising the Committee in this report is the way that the World Service is being integrated into the structure of the BBC. The World Service is part of the BBC News Group comprising all news services. The Director of the BBC World Service, Peter Horrocks is also Director of Global News and sits on the BBC News Board. One of the issues exercising the MPs is that there is no longer a separate World Service Board and in addition Horrocks does not sit on the main ‘board of directors’ of the Corporation the Executive Board. The BBC’s view is because Horrocks’ boss the Director of News and Current Affairs sits on the Executive Board the World Service is adequately represented. In addition they claim that the ‘worst outcome’ for the Service would be for it to be considered as a ‘ghetto’ or an ‘adjunct’.* The MPs suspect that despite the new agreement between the government and the BBC on the World Service it is essentially going to end up being subordinated to the broader corporate purposes of the BBC. William Hague doesn’t see it as his job to tell the BBC how to organize itself.

Some policy advice: the BBC is up for the renewal of its Charter next year, the new Charter needs to be approved by Parliament so MPs have the option of inserting language into the Charter and/or the agreement that goes with it that protects the World Service. The BBC would hate this but I think that the license agreed with the William Hague is rather vague about the relationship of the World Service to the broader international activities of the BBC.

*This strikes me as a little ironic given that the reputation of the World Service has been cultivated while it was an ‘adjunct’ – outside the structure of the regular domestic BBC.


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.


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.




Parliamentary Committee Gives the FCO a Kicking

April 13, 2012

The House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee has just put out its latest report on the work of the Foreign Office, the BBC World Service and the British Council.

The headline is that the Committee is impressed with the job that the FCO has done given that they don’t have any money.

Many of the specific points in the report won’t surprise readers of this blog

On the cuts

In this context, we conclude that the lack of detail provided by the FCO and the BBC World Service as to exactly how the spending reductions target set by SR2010 will be met is disappointing. While there is no doubt that meeting the targets set by the Spending Review will be challenging and will require much planning and forethought, it is equally disappointing that the FCO has not yet planned how a reduction of £40 million, or over one-third, of its programme spending will be achieved

Translation: ‘The FCO won’t tell us how it’s going to meet its financial targets and we suspect it’s because they haven’t got a clue.’

The FCO is trying to reshape its network of posts without incurring an overall cost by selling existing building and buying new ones in priority areas

We conclude that the FCO’s internal target of achieving £60 million of assets sales per year, and reinvesting this sum back into the overseas network, must be considered extremely optimistic; for this target to be reached, the FCO will need to sell, every year of the spending review period, properties with a total value three times the total value of those properties sold in 2009-10. We believe that the FCO will not be able to reach this target without inflicting serious damage on its overseas network.

Translation: ‘We don’t believe you can do this’

 The “Diplomatic Excellence” programme, and the consequent emphasis on increased skills for UK diplomats, is welcome. However, we question whether it will be able to reverse the long-term trend for the FCO to emphasise “management” over “traditional” diplomatic skills.

If you read the reports from the FCO to the committee appended to the report you will certainly get the impression that managerialism is alive at well at the FCO

The committee is unimpressed with efforts to save money by reducing overseas postings for younger diplomats by relying more on locally engaged staff, combined with the FCO encouraging staff to take secondments to the European External Action Service the result will be a smaller and less capable service.

The committee also echoes points made here about the future of the BBC World Service  and the British Council as parts of the UK public diplomacy effort

‘Public diplomacy’ and ‘strategic communication’  don’t get a mention anywhere in the report although soft power comes up in a couple of the evidence sessions.

Despite the headline the report is less than optimistic about the state of UK’s foreign policy capability.










The World Service at 80: The Ambivalence of International Broadcasting

February 29, 2012

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


Spending Cuts and the Coordination of UK Public Diplomacy

December 1, 2011

At the end of the last post I commented that it looks like the effort to create a coordinated British public diplomacy strategy has run out of steam. Nick Cull takes the view in some of his writings (eg 2010) that the different elements of public diplomacy advocacy, broadcasting, cultural diplomacy etc have different requirements and time frames and so that left to their own devices they will work independently. Getting effective coordination requires strong leadership. The two post 9/11 official reports on UK Public Diplomacy in 2002 (Wilton) and 2005 (Carter) both pointed to the need for a strategy and better coordination methods. Over the past 18 months there hasn’t been much indication of activity on this front. But what is most notable are the consequences of spending cuts. The BBC World Service will be funded by the BBC rather than by the Foreign Office. The British Council is projecting that by 2015 their grant from the FCO will have declined to 16% of their income. The FCO has found it hard to steer these organization in the past and with declining financial leverage one can only expect that this is going to be even harder. The aftermath of September 2011 (and the invasion of Iraq) gave a huge push to creating a coordinated communications strategy.

In retrospect the current situation parallels the way that the aftermath of the Suez Crisis in 1956 led to major public diplomacy efforts (including a cabinet minister with responsibility for overseas information) which declined as the ‘focusing event’ receded into the past and the economic cycle put pressure on government budgets. It seems that we are seeing a similar cycle.

Cull, N.J. (2010) ‘Speeding the Strange Death of American Public Diplomacy: The George H. W. Bush Administration and the U.S. Information Agency’, Diplomatic History, 34: 47-69. (Accessed November 8, 2011).

Three Rules for Understanding the BBC’s Global Strategy

February 28, 2011

A lot has been written about the cuts to the BBC World Service.  I haven’t written about this to any great extent because I haven’t had the time to really dig into what’s going on. I have to say that I was a bit puzzled as to how a 16% cut in funding translates into a 25% cut in services.

In this context the BBC Trust (this is the public body that oversees the operation of the BBC) has approved a document on the BBC’s Global Strategy. If you are not thoroughly steeped in BBC organization and language this is not easy to get you head round.  The key points for me are that BBC journalism is the primary global offering and this is driven by public service values but within this there is a distinction between foreign language (vernacular) services and the English language offering –

For the vernacular offer (where addressing ‘need’ is prioritised over driving ‘influence’) the public mission means playing an essential role in securing the UK’s long term national interests by showcasing values which the UK treasures and wishes to promote (e.g. a free media independent of Government). In this way the BBC can indirectly serve the UK’s interest in terms of international development and security.
For the BBC’s international English Language services, the public purpose means prioritising ‘influence’ over ‘need’: Broadcasting in the world’s more influential language, in the name of one of the most respected broadcasters, delivers significant influence on the global arena.

Influence over need? I’m not sure what they are getting at here.

The second major point is that non-journalism activities are going to be commercially driven within the limits of protecting the BBC brand.  Thirdly, there will be closer integration between domestic and international operations.

I’m not going to dissect this in detail but instead I’ll offer three rules for understanding the BBC. These are in part based on the fact that a few years ago I spent quite a lot of time with BBC management.

1. The BBC is an autonomous organization with its own interests. The BBC is an independent organization with its own identity and interests it simply can’t be read as an instrument of government policy.  Like other organizations it seeks to protect its interests. In terms of negotiating with the government it will seek to secure the best deal for itself and then interpret and implement that deal in the most favourable way possible.

2. The key interest is the protection of the license fee. The key interest is the preservation of the license fee (essentially a tax on the ownership of televisions).  This forces it to act in two directions.  Firstly, it needs to maintain a certain level of cordiality with the government because the government sets the level of the fee. Secondly, it needs to maintain a certain level of satisfaction among the license fee payers( that is the British public) because growing disatisfaction will undermine the willingness of the government to raise or even maintain the license fee.  Under the new funding arrangements the World Service will be funded by the license fee. International audiences don’t pay the license fee so when push comes to shove they will not be the first priority.

3. The BBC uses communications strategically. When the BBC was created one of the first six employees that Lord Reith hired was a Director of Public Relations.  Given the respect for the BBC in the UK and around the world BBC PR/Corporate Relations  has to be taken seriously as a political actor. So assume that anything that the BBC says about the BBC needs to be critically evaluated.

Where does this leave the BBC’s global strategy?  The BBC has sought to shape the impact of cuts in funding to suit its own agenda while trying to minimize its own role in choosing what to cut. (Was the decision to scrap the Hindi shortwave service made in the expectation that the political fallout would unlock extra funding?)  In the longer run the dependence on the license fee makes the World Service vulnerable to higher priority domestic operations.  The limit on the squeeze is that the World Service is an important part of the BBC brand both domestically and internationally.  Taking these together the future of the World Service is secure but the danger is that the World Service ends up as a symbol rather than as a dynamic part of the organization.