On Tuesday of this week, amid much pomp and fanfare (and a certain amount of suppressed hilarity) an Anglo-French Treaty was signed, providing for 50 years (no, really, 50 years) of defence co-operation. I’ve posted on this at the LSE blog here and haven’t much to add – basically there is less to this than meets the eye. Meanwhile, back in the real world, a little noticed policy poses a genuine threat to one of the major sources of British ‘soft’ power, the BBC World Service. As part of a wider deal on the funding of the BBC, funding for the Service is to be shifted from a grant from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) to the BBC itself. A Good Thing you might think, escaping from political control to the independent BBC? If so you would be very, very wrong. This is a disaster in the making.
Although obliged to fund it, the FCO exercises no control over the World Service which has operated in practice as a body independent of both the Government and the BBC. Now it will become part of the latter. Many foreigners think of the BBC as the source of quality news and documentaries, and boring ‘heritage’ costume dramas (sorry, that was editorialising). This is true, but it is also true that the BBC is a ruthlessly competitive organisation, continually searching for ratings success and seeking to sell its programmes abroad. The loss-making elements of the BBC are continually under pressure; domestic loss makers, such as the serious music and culture channel Radio 3, have a certain amount of protection because they have a vociferous and articulate middle-class audience who give the BBC a bad time whenever cuts are threatened. In spite of the assurances on continued funding that have been given, I doubt very much whether the World Service – and especially its foreign language broadcasts – will, in practice, have the same kind of protection. They cost money and their audience doesn’t have a vote or much of a voice in Britain.
It is significant that virtually no British politician has expressed concern at the fate of the World Service – but Hillary Clinton has. She, and the State Department in general, are well aware that the BBC World Service is an important asset not simply for Britain but for the West in general; when Barack Obama wanted to talk directly to the Iranian people he used the BBC’s Farsi service because of its loyal audience in Iran, based on the reputation for integrity it has earned over the years with the Iranian people. Let’s hope it is still there in five years time.