The (Soft) Power That Daren’t Speak Its Name
This week the BBC – used as it is to brickbats from Tory politicians – got a rare bit of good news from the government.
As part of his early turn as Father Christmas, Chancellor George Osborne allocated £289 million to the World Service over the next five years to pay for new services to places like North Korea and Eritrea.
This partially reversed his 2010 decision that the BBC’s international broadcasting would no longer be paid for by a grant from the Foreign Office, but out of the Licence Fee.
BBC Director General, Tony Hall, welcomed the deal as the single biggest increase in funding for the World Service by any government ever.
Despite these warm words from the Corporation, caution would be advised in the corridors – or open plan offices – of Broadcasting House.
Strikingly, the announcement came not in the Chancellor’s Spending Review but in the Strategic Defence and Security Review a couple of days earlier.
What has the World Service got to do with security and defence, you may ask.
The answer lies in politics and international diplomacy.
Many Conservative MPs – even ones who don’t like the BBC on principle because it is publicly funded – like the World Service.
That’s partly because of the feel good factor from when they travel abroad and the people they meet say complimentary things about something British.
But it’s also because politicians have come to appreciate that the World Service is a major soft power asset to the UK.
In a nutshell, soft power is the ability to get people to do what you want by the power of attraction rather than by forcing them.
In many international comparisons of soft power the UK comes near the top of the table – and one of the things that people in other countries like about Britain is the BBC.
By being a high quality, independent source of news that is respected by audiences around the world, the BBC reflects well on the UK and represents the democratic values politicians like to say the country stands for.
The thing about soft power though is that it is hard earned and easily squandered.
It’s a bit like the diplomatic equivalent of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle in physics. Because of the scepticism of politicians and governments shared by many people around the world, the more visibly governments try to build up and wield their soft power the less effective it is.
Just ask the Chinese government. It spends billions on international broadcasting but it hasn’t made much difference to its soft power – because it’s perceived as propaganda.
By overtly linking funding for the BBC to the UK’s soft power in the Strategic Defence and Security Review, the government risks undermining the BBC’s reputation for independence and impartiality from the state – precisely what makes it attractive and popular with audiences around the world.
Of course the government’s intention in funding the World Service from its beginnings before the Second World War was always to increase British influence in the world, but when I first started working at World Service in the late 1980s it wasn’t something you talked about in those bald terms and certainly not much in public.
But times have changed and now Tony Hall himself made the link in his statement welcoming the new money.
“The World Service is one of the UK’s most important cultural exports and one of our best sources of global influence.” (my emphasis).
Indeed, pressure on funding has led the BBC down the path of pitching for more money by trying to leverage its contribution to the country’s soft power.
Take the BBC’s proposed new service for North Korea. There has been a small but persistent lobby in parliament for a Korean Service for years, but the BBC had always resisted this on the grounds it wouldn’t be cost effective because not many North Koreans would be able to hear it given jamming and strict controls on radio sales.
Despite the advent of digital and online, the same applies today as access to the internet in the country is highly restricted.
The danger is that if the BBC aligns itself too closely and too publicly with the government’s foreign policy goals and ministers talk about the BBC as part of the country’s security strategy, people abroad may come to distrust it, which in turn could mean the BBC’s influence – and its audience – will decline.
There’s a scene in Ridley Scott’s epic “Gladiator” when the Emperor, Marcus Aurelius, is talking about the danger his ideals may not survive his death.
“There was once a dream that was Rome. You could only whisper it. Anything more than a whisper and it would vanish… it was so fragile. And I fear that it will not survive the winter.”
The words may come from a movie, but the BBC and the government should take heed.