I was drawn to two articles in the Guardian today. The first is an excellent interview by Polly Toynbee with Aung San Suu Kyi (http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/apr/16/interview-aung-san-suu-kyi-polly-toynbee). Toynbee describes how Aung San 'has just learned of mutinies in army bases [in Burma] from the BBC World Service, a lifeline when information is so hard to come by. She is relieved the BBC's Burma service has been saved from British government cuts, "puzzled" at the decision to cut the Chinese service. After 70 years, the BBC's last Mandarin programmes for China have just been broadcast.'
Aung San Suu Kyi is not the only one who is 'puzzled' by this decision as China scholars and activists will testify. The British government claims that fewer Chinese are listening to the BBC and are preferring to access news and information from the internet. However, it is far too naive to base decisions that affect 1.4 billion people, many of whom live in poverty, are uneducated and reside in areas where internet access is difficult (not to mention the problem that users who are not technologically sophisticated face in breaching the 'Great Firewall') on such a questionable assumption. Besides, what happens when the Chinese decide to limit or completely stop access to the internet in areas or situations experiencing serious unrest? To whom will people turn for information and news if the BBC and VoA have ceased broadcasting in Mandarin?
One can begin to appreciate the force of the arguments proposed by Evgeny Morozov in his provocative book, The Net Delusion in which he suggests not only the folly of Net optimists who believe that the internet will liberate mankind, but also the way that governments, like Star Trek's Borg, adapt to new communications environments and technologies - assimilate them, if you will - for their own advantage.
This is demonstrated in another Guardian article which reports the activities of 'cyber activists' in Syria (http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/apr/15/syria-activists-protests-in-view). One activist who spreads news and information on social media 'receives regular death threats on his Facebook and Twitter accounts from what he believes are Syrian security agents'. After his sister was arrested, Syrian security posted a message on his wall: "You have until midnight tonight to announce your withdrawal from the Syrian revolution or we will get her." And yet the cyber-activists in Syria remain committed to the cause and to the importance of using the social media (incuding Youtube) to share information.
This leads me to a conclusion that is neither original nor surprising, but perhaps too simple for some governments in this age of austerity to understand: isn't there room and need for both old and new media? The new media represents a new-style of activism, mobilisation and method of P2P communication; but old broadcasting media are also required. The BBC Mandarin Service has built over decades a reputation among its audience for accuracy and credibility, and there is a clear relationship based on trust between broadcaster and audience (public diplomacy is all about relationships, after all). To abandon such relationships in the mistaken belief that they are antiquated and no longer required in order to save money is a mistake. Both the Foreign Office and USIA throughout their histories have believed they could turn language services on and off like a tap, only to find that when they are needed again, it is not that easy to rebuild audiences and reputations.
Perhaps when Aung San Suu Kyi speaks on such issues, the British and American governments would do well to listen.