The reputation of the BBC World Service around the world reflects that of Britain generally. It’s an institution tied to colonial history. It aspires to global reach. Through its journalism it tries to uphold values of impartiality and objectivity, and therein lies the attractive, soft power dimension. As an institution, however, it cannot escape appearing partial – it is funded by the British state, and that state wouldn’t continue to fund it unless it was serving Britain’s interests. Therein lies the appearance of hypocrisy that taints Britain’s soft power. But this week the British government announced a new funding mechanism, and yesterday Peter Horrocks, Director of BBC World Service, spoke about the changes to an audience in London.
The BBC World Service is currently funded by a direct grant from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), Britain’s State Department. While a Royal Charter prevents the FCO interfering in the editorial content of World Service programming, the FCO can decide which foreign language services are strengthened or cut. In the last decade, Arabic and other strategically important language services have tended to do quite well, others less so. Last year the government announced the World Service would be funded through the annual licence fee people in Britain must pay in order to receive BBC content legally. The World Service will be just another part of the BBC per se, its tie to the FCO less obvious. This week the World Service was granted extra funding not least because of its performance through the Arab Spring and supportive comments from Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese opposition leader.
The problem for the World Service now is that it is just another BBC service, funded by taxpayers. In the current economic malaise, taxpayers might feel extra hospitals are more important than Hindi radio. Horrocks suggested that the World Service is highly regarded by British citizens. But historically, the value of World Service programming is to those in conflict zones and diasporic publics who consumed its cultural output. People in Britain gets a more parochial, national BBC news and are probably unaware of the range and impact of World Service programming.
As the World Service becomes increasingly integrated into the general BBC – sharing technology, content, staff, and buildings – and as it has to justify itself to a home audience, so its distinctiveness would seem under threat. Horrocks seemed optimistic. For example, the fragmentation of media across devices, formats and languages and creation of innumerable niche micro-audiences is not a problem because the World Service has the tools and expertise to repackage the same news for all possible outlets. While China, Russia and others may be investing huge resources on rival global broadcasting organisations, the World Service retains the credibility borne of its professional, impartial journalistic ethos (note that Al-Jazeera has been criticised for treating different Arab Spring uprisings in very different ways, prompting a prickly reaction).
Horrocks finally turned to the question of soft power. He argued that the World Service does not aim to project soft power, but that paradoxically it does create soft power for Britain because the objectivity of World Service journalism becomes associated with Britain. A moment later, however, he said the World Service aims to project and change people’s perspectives, to “impart impartiality”. Imparting sounds very much like changing minds. Changing minds is an instrumental goal for the FCO, who want the world to “do business with Britain”. Does this make the World Service an unwitting instrument of the FCO? This ambivalence is exactly why the World Service is open to charges of hypocrisy.
Horrocks must be thanked for speaking openly and taking questions, and it is important that the World Service continues to engage in critical discussion about its role and purpose. I would be interested to know whether the chiefs of CCTV or Russia Today hold free flowing public debates.