While the Chinese government is investing $7 billion in a new global media push and Chinese television is opening up new offices in Times Square in London, the decision of the British and American governments to make drastic cuts to their international broadcasting systems, including broadcasting to China, has caused dismay and consternation among Chinese audiences.
On the other hand, it is no wonder that the Chinese People’s Congress has interpreted the Western media retreat as a major victory in the intense global competition for soft power influence. How else can it be interpreted?
But not so fast. That is the message of a new report released on April 13 by the Foreign Affairs Committee of the British Parliament, “Implications of Cuts to the BBC World Service,” which calls for a reversal of crippling cuts to the BBC World Service imposed by the Tory government.
One result of the cuts has been the recent end to BBC shortwave broadcasting not just to China but to Russia as well, after 70 years on the airwaves. All of this has been causing quite an uproar in the Houses of Parliament.
Now, you don’t have to be fan of the BBC to see the issue here. The BBC has been called the “Baghdad Broadcasting Corporation” for its evident sympathies during the invasion of Iraq. Yet, because it is a major British institution, ending its broadcasting to countries without free media sends a huge symbolic message.
Here in Washington, the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) has similarly proposed eliminating Voice of America radio and television broadcasting to China by October this year. However, the bout of second thoughts entertained by the Brits ought to cause a serious reconsideration of the decisions made here in Washington, which are sending a signal to the world of American international retreat.
While some streamlining of U.S. international broadcasting will be necessitated by the House Republicans’ proposed 10 percent cut in the BBG’s current $745 million budget, economies should clearly not be found by the wholesale elimination of key services.
In Britain, a cut of 16 percent was imposed on the BBC World Service through the period 2010–11 to 2014–15. Furthermore, the budgetary responsibility for funding the World Service was moved from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to the BBC, presumably in order to cause reductions in the foreign operations budget. Because the BBC World Service is of such value to the nation, it should be protected against spending cuts, says the Foreign Affairs Committee in its report into the future of the BBC World Service. The report also says that the decision to transfer funding responsibility for the BBC World Service from the Foreign Office to the BBC itself will have major long-term ramifications and should be reconsidered. In other words, the concern is that a major foreign policy asset is about to be destroyed if the BBC management were able to siphon off its budget to other parts of its operations.
According to the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Richard Ottaway:
The value of the World Service in promoting the U.K. across the globe, by providing a widely respected and trusted news service, far outweighs its relatively small cost. The recent dramatic events in North Africa and the Middle East have shown that the “soft power” wielded through the World Service could bring even more benefits to the U.K. in the future than it has in the past, and that to proceed with the planned cuts to the World Service would be a false economy.
If the cuts are to proceed, the committee proposes protecting the Hindi and Mandarin services and increasing resources for Arabic broadcasts to the Middle East.
The Cameron government is defending its proposal, but it may find itself overruled by Parliament. A vote on the BBC cuts is expected this summer and is likely to result in a reversal of the cuts. Similarly, recent U.S. congressional hearings held by Representative Dana Rohrabacher (R–CA) suggest that Congress might finally step up to the task of oversight of U.S. international broadcasting. It is not a moment too soon.