Thursday, 23 June 2011

The Accidental Public Diplomat and the BBC World Service

In the UK we measure age by three things: which Blue Peter presenters we remember; which was 'our' Dr Who; and with whom we awoke on the BBC Radio 1 Breakfast Show. Growing up in the 1970s, I listened first to Noel Edmonds, before Dave Lee-Travis took the helm (and I think this was the last time I listened to Radio 1).

Yesterday 'The Hairy Cornflake' as he was affectionately known at Radio 1 emerged as the latest Accidental Public Diplomat when the Burmese pro-democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi said that Lee-Travis's show on the BBC World Service had made her 'world much more complete'. She said: 'I would listen to that quite happily because the listeners would write in and I had a chance to hear other people's words.' The democracy leader then noted that the World Service had enabled her to keep 'in touch with everything ... with culture, with art, with books, with music.'

This news was released on the day that the BBC Trust welcomed the British Foreign Secretary's announcement that an additional £2.2 million per year would be provided to the World Service over the next three years. This means Hindi, Somali and Arabic language services (the Arabic service was the first foreign language service of the BBC Empire Service) will be saved from the axe.

This extra funding means the World Service is now facing a reduction of its annual budget by £42 million by the end of March 2014, rather than £46 million. This means five language services - Albanian, Russian, Portuguese for Africa, Serbian and English for the Carribean - will close. Radio broadcasts in Mandarin, Russian, Turkish and Vietnamese will cease, switching to other platforms.

I have talked about the folly of this in previous bogs and will not rehearse those arguments again here. What is most worrying is that from 1 April 2014, the BBC will take over from the Foreign Office funding the World Service using licence fee revenue. What this means is that the World Service, the most credible and trusted instrument of British public diplomacy, will have to compete with all the other BBC channels and platforms for funding. A programme in Korean or Strictly Come Dancing? The BBC World Service or BBC 3? How do you compare apples and pears?

Dave Lee-Travis was understandably pleased that his programme had made such an impact: 'I think it's rather nice,' he said, 'and it came as a pleasant surprise to me, that a leader of a country in the world, especially one that's been very repressed, listened to my programme, to get a bit of jollity in her life.'    

Monday, 6 June 2011

Xinhua calls for 'Media UN'

Below is a story from the Wall Street Journal (1 June 2011). It is by Li Congjun, the President of China's Xinhua news agency, and is thirty years out of date. We all know what happened to MacBride, published in 1980; moreover, attempts to regulate international media and communications have never been very successful. Remember the struggle between the right to freedom of speech and the right to protect one's own internal affairs and sovereignty, both enshrined in international regimes at the end of WWII and both used at regular intervals by all powers during the Cold War to justify or rail against international propaganda. 

Li suggests in this article four principles which could provide the foundation for a new regime, but he fails to tell us how these might be practiced or enforced. Moreover, if the principles did contribute to the structure of a new international regime about information, Xinhua would be the first to feel its heavy hand (read the four principles and then remember this is the President of Xinhua - a news agency in an authoritarian political system - suggesting them). 

Finally is the idea of cultural imperialism relevant anymore in an international system where culture and information do not flow north-south, or west-east, but are multi-directional and allow for a number of greater regional voices that challenge a supposed 'western hegemony' (Al-jazeera is the most stunning example)?

One must ask: why Xinhua and why now? Could it be that China's international media (and Xinhua's own television service) have finally realised that they are unable to compete with other broadcasting systems? Do they believe that it is far easier to blame outsiders (after all, the western media ARE biased against China, right?) than to address shortcomings in their own organisations, content and formats?



We need a mechanism to coordinate the global communications industry, something like a 'media U.N.'


The world established a new international order after World War II with the founding of the United Nations. For over six decades, the international community has endeavored to create a more balanced, just and rational political and economic order.
Unfortunately the rules governing the international media order lag behind the times, especially compared to changes in politics and economics. The gap is seen, first and foremost, in the extremely uneven pattern of international communication. The flow of information is basically one-way: from West to East, North to South, and from developed to developing countries.
In 1980, the 21st General Conference of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco) addressed the imbalance and inequality in international news reporting and called for a new order in international mass communication. Over the years, a growing number of insightful people, including many from the West, have proposed changes with the conviction that the existing order is far from just, rational and balanced.
In our interdependent world, the human community needs a set of more civilized rules to govern international mass communication. This reminds me of bridge, a game I truly enjoy. Modern bridge is known as contract bridge, indicating that players are bound by a contract and the game is a bidding process, in which wise and effective exchanges of information rely on collaboration and communication carried out in a fair and just manner.
Earlier variations of bridge, known as bridge-whist or straight bridge, were different. In bridge-whist, there was no bidding and the game was all about gambling, making communication difficult. The modern game has been shaped by gradual rule changes over the years.
The "bridge" linking modern information flow and the international media is crumbling, in a sense, due to a lack of fair "contracting" and "gaming." This situation is incompatible with the contemporary world. An unjust and irrational order hinders the global media industry's sustainable development and contributes to the problems in today's world. We need to start a constructive reform through rule changes to rebuild the bridge of communication and let the media industry play a more active role in promoting the advancement of human civilization.
Four principles should guide changes in the value system:
• Fairness: This requires that media organizations from all countries should have the right to participate in international communication on equal terms. Those media organizations in turn should provide comprehensive, objective, fair, balanced and accurate coverage to minimize discrimination and prejudice.
• All-win: It is advisable to create conditions allowing media organizations from different countries to share the fruits of development in information and communication industries, to play an active role in international mass communication, and to reverse the unbalanced situation where the strong get stronger and the weak get weaker.
• Inclusion: To maintain the world's diversity, media must respect the unique cultures, customs, beliefs and values of different nations; strive to dispel suspicions and remove barriers between different cultures and civilizations; enhance dialogue and communication; and seek common ground while putting aside differences.
• Responsibility: Media organizations should not only ensure openness and transparency to promote the building of an open society, but also keep to rational and constructive rules so as to turn mass communication into an active force for promoting social progress.
We must also keep improving rules and explore new mechanisms governing international communication. Unesco should actively negotiate and settle issues within the U.N. framework. However, it is necessary to keep improving rules and, when the conditions are ripe, to explore a long-term, nongovernmental mechanism to coordinate the global media industry, something like a "media U.N." This can be a mechanism for global media exchanges and consultation, and it may evolve into an organization for coordination and maybe even arbitration.
A sports analogy may help explain what I mean. Ping-pong, or table tennis, played a unique role in restoring China-U.S. relations in the 1970s and is known as China's "national sport." For many years, Chinese ping-pong players have taken the top prize in almost all major international events. This presents a paradox: The stronger a team becomes, the more it desires to maintain its position and keep improving. However, when a team is invincible for too long, few others are inclined to compete.
In the long run, the sport in which China enjoys so much advantage will be less appealing, less viable, and may eventually be excluded from future Olympic Games. In fact, ping-pong has undergone a series of major rule changes over the past two decades. After the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, the older 38mm balls were replaced by 40mm balls and the former 21-point scoring system was changed to an 11-point system. These changes, aimed at limiting the advantage of "super players," have made the sport more enticing to players from different countries.
The theories of "checking superpower" and "maintaining equilibrium" also apply to the media. It is time to reverse the marginalization of developing nations in the media, change their underdeveloped status, and enhance their rights of expression in the international media market. To that end, a mechanism for international cooperation, exchange and coordination is needed, as well as an increase in funds and technical support for media from developing countries.
Almost five decades after the discovery of the double helix, James Watson said in his book, "DNA: The Secret of Life," that the Human Genome Project found that human beings are similar in genetic makeup. Our common ground is far wider than any potential gulf that threatens to separate us.
Information flow, like gene transcription and expression, plays a vital role in the evolution of civilization. Resetting rules and order in the international media industry is an adaptation to the trend of democratization of international relations. With diversified expression and information flow, we can mend the broken bridge of cross-cultural communication and build an information link to the future.
Mr. Li is president of China's Xinhua News Agency.

Thursday, 2 June 2011

"Foreign Office criticised for axing terror cartoon"

This is an incredible story, and I can see my old friend Phil Taylor having a good old chuckle over this. An independent media company has developed, with funding from the Foreign Office, a six minute animated film called Wish You Waziristan. It is about two Muslim brothers who travel from London to the terrorist training camps in Pakistan. The problem is that the launch of the film has been staggered by its creators uploading parts of the film on Youtube. Once a newspaper got hold of the story, the FCO pulled the plug. This means viewers did not get to see the payoff - that the principal character, attracted to the terrorist's life - becomes disillusioned. It is now possible to view the clips as terrorist propaganda, especially as each clip ends with the message 'Join us here'.

And then they wonder why they are losing the information war ....

A useful description of the film and Muslim reaction can be found here

The second report hints (in a typical Mail way) that perhaps money would be better spent on understanding fighting the reasons why young Muslims are radicalised. This is, after all, where the information war will be lost or won.

I would also add that before designing such a campaign, it is important to seek advice from members of the target audience. The reaction from young Muslims and those representing Muslims in the UK is that the style and themes of this film will make no difference.