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.'    

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