September 30, 2022 - 5:00pm

Almost any public policy decision, however contentious, can be justified in some manner, even if the justification does not command universal acceptance. The BBC’s decision to axe its World Service broadcasts in dozens of languages and to fire hundreds of staff belongs to the rare category of decision that only make sense if you assume the Corporation is being run by the United Kingdom’s worst enemies.

Consider the list of services set for the axe. On the radio side, they include broadcasts for the insignificant languages of Arabic (360 million speakers), Persian (110 million; and in the middle of widespread unrest in Iran, too), Kyrgyz (4,5 million), Uzbek (44 million), Hindi (322 million; what will this do to the UK’s pivot to the Quad in the Asia-Pacific?), Bengali (300 million), Chinese (1,3 billion), Indonesian (300 million), Tamil (86 million), and Urdu (230 million).

Another seven languages are moving to “digital only”, including Chinese (the BBC website has been blocked in China for years). The English service will develop its “podcast offer” for the ever-elusive younger audiences, the same ones the BBC is pathologically incapable of attracting domestically.

Now, the Beeb will not be the most popular four-letter word in these parts, but as an instrument of British soft power it is hard to exaggerate its impact. The World Service is among the most recognisable British institutions internationally; countless foreign decision- and opinion-makers have been influenced by it.

For many, the World Service, whether in English or vernacular, is what gives them a favourable impression of the United Kingdom. This extends to far beyond the developing world: the World Service’s news bulletins are syndicated across American radio, and they have an outsized audience among officials in Washington (the BBC also wants to “reduc[e] the volume of syndicated TV and radio content”).

Until one of George Osborne’s economy drives, the World Service had been financed directly out of the Foreign Office budget. Successive foreign secretaries, most of them Conservative and few of them bleeding-heart liberals, rightly saw it as an instrument of British foreign policy first and foremost, and paid for it accordingly. Soft power is far from being everything —sometimes only a gunboat will do — but it still matters enormously, particularly as the UK is trying to renew old friendships and forge new ones outside of Europe.

The BBC promises that it will “accelerate [sic] its digital offering” at the same time, but it is hard to see how it plans to do this after also firing 382 World Service employees. All of this is in order to achieve savings of £28.5m, which is equal to 21 Gary Linekers, or a week’s budget for BBC One. Or indeed, a tenth of the projected cost of the new royal yacht, designed to fly the flag around the world, at far higher cost but far lower returns (the UK can afford both; but which should have priority is a non-brainer).

This decision is emblematic of the British foreign policy blob’s inability to see where its strengths lie internationally and to cut corners at the worst places possible. The Foreign Office, which signed off on the changes (though the decision was the BBC management’s) had previously scrapped its in-house language school to save an enormous £1m a year, before having to reverse the decision six years later, as it the stupidity of the decision became clear even to permanent under-secretaries.

Liz Truss might speak tough on China, but under her watch the number of Chinese speakers in the Foreign Office actually dropped. British external messaging is often filled with contemporary twee which simply has no resonance abroad.

Few electorates like the idea of giving things to foreigners for free; but effective diplomacy often requires just that. The UK can either have a mature foreign policy; or it can save the budget equivalent of CBeebies and burn immense quantities of goodwill. Britannia no longer rules the waves; will she now give up the airwaves as well?

Yuan Yi Zhu is an assistant professor at Leiden University and a research fellow of Harris Manchester College, Oxford.