“Inform, educate, entertain”. These are three words which are intended to capture the mission of the BBC, the world’s first – and still most influential – public service broadcaster.
Nowhere in this formulation, however, or indeed the rest of the organisation’s guiding document, is there any mention of ‘soft power’. While there is a call for the corporation to “reflect the United Kingdom, its culture and values to the world”, this feels at odds with how some increasingly present the BBC: as a unique tool in a grand geopolitical struggle.
China’s decision to ban BBC World News (in retaliation to Britain’s Ofcom banning its state broadcaster CGTN) has rendered this argument publicly explicit. One of the reasons we should care about the BBC, we are told, is because it enhances British influence abroad – allowing our country to punch above its weight. Sheffield may no longer dominate the world’s steel markets, nor Manchester cotton garment manufacturing – but we can still relay facts to the world in the Queen’s English.
The arguments for such an organisation certainly make sense – particularly for any state with global ambitions. But should the licence fee payer fund it? While the rest of the corporation’s mission relates to domestic issues, the BBC World Service – which includes both BBC World News and the World Service – does not. Should a barista or security guard really subsidise our elite’s infatuation with global influence? Should people struggling with debt fund a geopolitical Zimmer frame for a great power which no longer exists?
This isn’t an argument against the BBC, which, for any failings, remains good value and a vital national resource. One reason the British public is ill-disposed to vaccine conspiracy theories, one could argue, is the dominance of its public service broadcaster. What’s more, the BBC is one of the few institutions, alongside the NHS, which binds the country together, cultivating a sense of national community through popular recognition and common habit. Yet none of this has anything to do with an organisation presently broadcasting in 42 languages abroad while enduring historic cuts at home.
This strange dissonance is in fact relatively new. The BBC World Service Group has only been funded from the licence fee since 2014 – one of David Cameron’s many cost-cutting efforts which the passage of time has exposed as both untenable and myopic. Before then the group was funded by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) – an appropriate choice given its core objectives. The coalition government’s intention, therefore, was to maintain the illusion of great power on the cheap, while underfunding journalism of vital public interest.
In response to China’s counter-measures, foreign secretary Dominic Raab wrote on Twitter that the decision represented an “unacceptable curtailing of media freedom”, and that it would damage China’s reputation. Tough words, but the Middle Kingdom’s strong suit, unlike the UK, isn’t ‘soft power’ but a $15tn economy. The fact that the BBC has been shut out of the world’s largest market does, however, underscore how China is now willing to contest cultural hegemony, whether through offering free vaccines to Taiwanese nationals (in a bid, one might argue, to promote re-unification), the Belt-and-Road initiative, or the launch of ‘Confucius Institutes’ worldwide. The country’s rise as an economic titan may be decades old, but all this is relatively new.
It’s both explicable and inevitable that China – a country of 1.3bn people, with the world’s second largest economy – has such aspirations. In Britain, however, the cuts being faced by the BBC are just one part of a broader media crisis which preceded the pandemic but increasingly appears existential. In a context where local newspapers are vanishing and national newspapers can no longer afford to do basic news-gathering, can we really justify the licence fee subsidising the veneer of soft power to the tune of hundreds of millions a year? Why is our medium-sized country obsessed with having a broadcaster able to influence a nation with almost 20% of the planet’s population? And if, as a country, we do want that, then surely it should be funded by the FCO as before?
It’s important to underscore the scale of the crisis of local media in particular. Once the backbone of British journalism, many local papers have either now disappeared completely or been subsumed by mighty conglomerates. In the 1960s, the Manchester Evening News enjoyed a circulation of over 480,000 – yet by June last year this had fallen to 13,000. Between 2005 and 2019, there was a net loss of 245 local news titles nationwide. Those that remain now operate as ghost ships, with local reporters having to file multiple pieces in the same day, and quantity replacing quality in a constant struggle for digital revenues. An estimated 58% of the country is no longer served by a regional newspaper – and yet we fund broadcast journalism in Pashto, Icelandic and Uzbek. It may well be the case we are happy to resource such things – but this shouldn’t be via the licence fee when British journalism dangles by a thread.
Perhaps we should take lessons from Norway, where in order to ensure ideological and consumer heterogeneity, national and local newspapers often enjoy government subsidies. Intriguingly, this would appear to exercise a multiplier effect, with Norwegians the most likely people in the world to pay for online news. In terms of adhering to the BBC’s core mission of informing, educating and entertaining the British public, this seems far more sensible than providing global news in 42 languages. What’s more, it demonstrates an important interplay between private and public funding: state subsidies should not be viewed as being at odds with a rich and varied media market. Rather than see ourselves as rivalling the US or China, we’d be better served ensuring the public purse supports vital journalism undertaken at a local level. Yes, the BBC does this – but beyond local radio, this is to the tune of just £8m a year. This is nowhere near enough.
The BBC World Service is a microcosm of how our country’s politicians ignore current crises while obsessively pursuing the illusion of global influence. If Britain’s journalism is to have a bright future, it needs different priorities. The FCO should foot the bill for the World Service, cuts to the BBC at home should be reversed, and long-overdue local news subsidies should be implemented. Journalism shouldn’t be concerned with ‘soft power’ – just the truth.
Aaron Bastani is a Novara Media contributing editor and co-founder.