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How the BBC could wield soft power The broadcaster could be be an effective instrument of influence — but it needs to raise its game

Clouds hover over Broadcasting House. Credit: Carl Court/Getty

Clouds hover over Broadcasting House. Credit: Carl Court/Getty

January 14, 2020   6 mins

In the brave new post-Brexit world, there is widespread agreement that if the UK wants to increase, or even maintain, its international influence, it will need to do more to maximise its “soft power”. And one of the most cherished and effective instruments of “soft power”, as seen from London at least, is the BBC.

As seen and heard from abroad, that essentially means the BBC World Service. Given its impressive figures, any government, not just one facing the uncertainties of Brexit, would see the potential.

The BBC World Service currently broadcasts in more than 40 languages to a global audience — across radio, television and internet — now estimated at 426 million a week, with a target of 500 million. But the television audience for English-language programmes has overtaken the English-language radio audience worldwide, and — along with digital — it is growing faster. So far as international broadcasting is concerned, the present and the future are television.

But how well equipped is BBC World Service television — now, after various name changes, officially called BBC World News — to spearhead a UK “soft power” offensive? Having regularly viewed both the BBC and its competition during frequent travels in recent months, I would sadly submit: not very.

With its global reach, its glorious history, and the advantage that the UK is home to the English language, the broadcaster is lauded as unique to “brand” Britain. Times have changed, though, since the BBC World Service (then radio only) ruled the airwaves, and the now 30-year old BBC World Service television looks distinctly unimpressive from abroad.

So why did the BBC’s global television service lose its edge? A more pertinent question would perhaps be whether it was ever the world-beater it claimed to be in the first place. Since its creation, in 1991, it is probably fair to say that a large part of its reputation was borrowed: it was automatically identified with the BBC World Service radio and allowed to bask, to an extent, in reflected glory.

But there were always big differences between the radio and television services. Where the radio had a long and distinguished history, and was funded until recently by a grand-in-aid from the Foreign Office (while running itself editorially), the TV arm was denied either government or licence-payer funding. It was set up, instead, as a commercial proposition, relying largely on advertising and subscriptions.

Because it uses many of the same correspondents and resources and benefits from the BBC brand, it has generally been treated with the same respect as the BBC World Service radio. But this respect hasn’t always been warranted. There have been questions, for example, about sponsored programming. But it has bred a certain complacency about the competition. For years, BBC World Service TV has been comparing itself favourably with American international broadcasters, such as CNN — which is not hard to do; the bar is not high —  while ignoring the growing appeal of European stations.

From what I’ve seen, the chief competition to the BBC today comes not from the US, but from the two premier European services: France 24 and Germany’s Deutsche Welle. While not a national broadcaster, the Lyon-based Euronews is up there, too.

All three broadcast internationally in English (often with native English-speaking presenters) as well as in other languages. France 24 has French, Arabic and Spanish, and a combined audience of 61 million; DW has Arabic as well as German, and a combined audience of 135 million (compared with 101 million for BBC World Service television which broadcasts only in English). Both are growing fast.

Taking these stations as the competition, then, BBC World News falls down on a host of comparisons, starting with the absolute basic: timely and worldwide news coverage. BBC World News boasts that it breaks more stories from more places than any other channel. How much of a recommendation that is, however, depends on what those stories are and how they are treated.

Travelling in Italy over Christmas, and in East and Central Europe during the autumn, I found the BBC to be slower on fresh news than the competition, and to have less hard news in the overall output than soft-ish and often repeated features. If I wanted to switch on and know what was happening, France 24 was a much better bet.

A specific example was coverage of the Russia-Ukraine end-of-year prisoner exchange, which on the BBC lagged far behind the actual news and was given little context. US shootings took precedence – even though the service was billed BBC World News Europe.

There was a qualitative difference, too, in the content and tone of features. The ratio of relatively timeless features to news seemed greater, sometimes much greater, on the BBC than on the other channels. A striking proportion of the BBC’s output also seemed too focused on aid projects of various kinds, with a fairly obvious, but unspoken, didactic streak. Even more striking, compared with France24 and DW, was the paucity of features about life in Britain. Both European stations gave substantial glimpses of how life is lived in their countries and looked — sometimes critically — in the mirror.

To be fair, BBC World News did relay some of the crucial parliamentary sessions live, during the Brexit debates. Then again, so did most other international stations, as events in the UK were seen as having global significance. It was a pity, then, that BBC World News did not make a bigger effort to interpret what was happening for the benefit of non-UK viewers.

There are two other points that might be more important for viewers abroad than BBC HQ in London might think. First, quite a few of the presenters and reporters could do with smartening up. Some look downright scruffy, compared with their French and German counterparts. You may object on the grounds that sartorial negligence never harmed anyone. But when you switch from DW to BBC World News and the BBC guy’s shirt is unironed and the trousers don’t fit, I’m sorry, but authority is lost.

Which leaves my final point. The service doesn’t capitalise sufficiently on what could and should be one of the BBC’s greatest strengths vis-a-vis the competition: a wealth of native speakers to choose from. If you watch the BBC abroad, you might expect presenters and reporters to speak comprehensible English. Of course not demanding that everyone should speak the Queen’s English c. 1930, old Etonian or extreme RP. Nor am I saying that English shouldn’t be accented. But the presenter should be understandable. Someone who isn’t shouldn’t be reporting in the name of the BBC.

Both France 24 and Deutsche Welle employ fluent English speakers for their English-language channels. So why can’t the BBC, with all the advantages that come from being the home side linguistically, do the same?

Perhaps, then, the top brass should set aside a few hours to view the competition in real time (I wonder if they ever have). That should focus minds.

But tweaks to the programming and a decent wardrobe consultant alone will not do it. These are pretty cosmetic fixes. BBC World Service television is not going to be an effective instrument of “soft power” unless there some rather more fundamental changes.

The first would be to bring World Service radio and televison under the same funding structure and editorial direction, so that it functions as one. At the moment, they are separate, with the radio and its foreign language services funded by the licence-fee and World Service television a commercial entity, funded by advertising and subscription, as it was when it was first set up.

The argument against bringing World Service television in-house was always the cost. But this could be changing. Five years ago, the then Government agreed to a BBC request for more money for its international services — to the tune of £89 million a year — to be spread across World Service radio, television and digital. This would suggest that World Service television is not quite as separate or self-sufficient as it was. With a government that is loosening the purse-strings generally, the time could be ripe for this change.

The second would be to define the mission of this new unified service more clearly – as entailing the projection of a distinct view, or views, from London. This would have to be handled carefully, as it could encounter staff resistance.

While France 24 and Deutsche Welle are both directly state-owned and their staff well understand that they work for a state broadcaster, I suspect many BBC World Service staff — and I say this as a World Service staff member myself long ago — do not see themselves in the same way. I suspect, too, that they would take a dim view of the idea that the prime purpose of the BBC’s international services was to promote UK “soft power” as a potential threat to their much prized independence.

This could be an obstacle, but it is not insurmountable. The BBC is both aware of, and takes a certain pride in, being seen as a flagship of the UK’s “soft power”. But it regards this as a product of its quality and editorial standards, rather than the reason for its existence. There is no reason to alter this. What could and should be changed is to ensure that those standards are coonsistently upheld across all its international services — radio, television and digital — and that the voice of the BBC abroad is one that comes identifiably from the UK.

International broadcasting, especially television, is highly, and increasingly, competitive. The UK, through the reputation of the BBC World Service had a head start. It cannot afford to rest on its laurels.

Mary Dejevsky was Moscow correspondent for The Times between 1988 and 1992. She has also been a correspondent from Paris, Washington and China.


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