BBC World Service: expanding 'global democracy' or just a tool of soft power for the UK?

As the BBC expands its World Service, we ask whether democratic ideals or Brexit goals are behind the dial

A British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) programmer Busayo Iruemiode checks a website in Pidgin in Lagos, on August 18, 2017. 
On August 21, 2017 the British media giant will launch an online portal that will be entirely in Pidgin and feature text news, features and podcasts. Pidgin takes inspiration from Portuguese, the first European language to reach Nigeria's shores, English, the enduring colonial-era language, as well as Jamaican patois imported by former slaves returning to the continent. The language has shifted and evolved uninterrupted since its inception. / AFP PHOTO / AMELIE QUERFURTH

This month, 54 years after the end of the bloody conflict with the Mau Mau rebels that ended three-quarters of a century of imperial rule in Kenya, the British are returning to their former East African colony – in word, if not in deed.

Afaan Oromo, spoken in Ethiopia and Kenya, is one of a dozen dedicated language channels being launched on various platforms by the BBC World Service over the next few weeks. In Nigeria, ruled by London from 1800 to 1960, the British are already wielding new influence – on August 21, the BBC introduced a new digital service in Pidgin, an informal language derived from English and spoken by tens of millions of people in West and Central Africa, including 75 million in Nigeria alone. Pidgin and Afaan Oromo are among a dozen new tongues being added to the BBC's portfolio in the biggest expansion of the World Service since the Second World War, bringing the total languages broadcast to 40. Half of the 12 new languages are spoken in Africa, chiefly in Ethiopia, Eritrea and Nigeria, but the BBC is also launching services aimed at North Korea, Russia and parts of India. New Arabic-language radio programmes for the Gulf and North Africa were added in May. According to the BBC, which aims to extend its reach from 308 million to 500 million people by 2022, it is merely doing the non-English-speaking world a favour.

"In a world of anxieties about fake news, where media freedom is being curtailed rather than expanded, the role of an independent, impartial news provider is more important than ever," said Tony Hall, BBC director-general, last week.

But the fact that the £289 million (Dh1.376 billion) expansion has been paid for by the British government, suggests to some that the BBC, renowned for
impartiality, has become an instrument of UK foreign policy.

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The new funding certainly represents a UK government U-turn. In the shadow of austerity it withdrew financial support for the World Service in 2014, ordering the BBC to fund it, like its domestic programming, from the £147 (Dh700) annual licence fee payable by anyone in the UK who receives BBC output on any platform.

"The evidence seems to suggest that the BBC World Service is an integral part of Britain's foreign policy," says Hakim Adi, professor of the history of Africa and the African diaspora at the University of Chichester.

The organisation Stop Foreign Intervention in Africa, which argues that "corruption and poverty in Africa can only be ended by breaking all neo-colonial ties", also sees the expansion of the BBC World Service in the region as "an example of … 'soft power'".

"I share the views expressed," says Professor Adi, who in an article published in E-International Relations in 2012, questioned whether Britain could truly be described as a post-colonial power. In the past few decades, he wrote, even where "colonial-style invasion" had not taken place, "every effort is made to impose 'British values', which it is claimed are universal".

The modern role of the BBC World Service as an agent of those values was set out clearly in the UK government's National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review 2015, in which the plan to fund the service was revealed. The UK government, it said, "will further enhance our position as the world's leading soft power promoting our values and interests globally, with … institutions such as the BBC World Service".

The BBC's director-general spelled out those values in a statement in 2015 welcoming the funding, which would "help the BBC deliver on our commitment to uphold global democracy".

But is it the business of the BBC to proselytise overseas in behalf of western democracy? A spokesperson told The National the broadcaster's aims "remain what they always have been – to provide independent, impartial and accurate news across the world, which upholds global democracy".

In fact, there is no mention of upholding global democracy in any of the five "public purposes" of the BBC, set out by the Royal Charter and Agreement that is the constitutional basis for its existence.

The precise wording of the fifth purpose is "To reflect the United Kingdom, its culture and values to the world", employing "high quality, accurate, impartial news coverage … aiding understanding of the UK as a whole."

But the BBC, says Simon Potter, professor of modern history at Bristol University, "has always seen itself as an essential support to democracy in Britain". Because of its charter obligation to serve what it sees as Britain's culture and values, "it is easy to see how this has sometimes translated among some of its employees into a broader belief that it should be promoting democracy in other countries". This doesn't, he says, "mean that the BBC … takes orders from civil servants or politicians on a day-to-day basis".

But in an interview with The Guardian last month,Francesca Unsworth, the director of BBC World Service, seemed to validate concerns that the expansion was part of a new scramble for political and commercial influence in Africa and elsewhere. The World Service had become even more vital, she said, in the face of the expansion of rival state-backed services from countries including Russia and China. Sounding more like a British overseas trade minister than a BBC employee, she said her main concern was "the Chinese [who] are investing in Africa, for instance, big time … We are in danger of handing over the international media space to people who do not have [our] values … and are not impartial".

Africa isn't the only controversial new area being opened up by the BBC, which this month will begin what appears to be an open attempt to subvert the North Korean regime with a daily half-hour radio broadcast. Ms Unsworth told The Guardian the shortwave programmes would go out in the middle of the night, so "people have the opportunity to listen under their bedclothes without telling the neighbours". North Korean embassy staff in London, she said, "told us in no uncertain terms that they didn't want us to launch this service".

The power and the reach of the BBC overseas, says Dr Chris Prior, a lecturer in 20th century history at the University of Southampton, "is definitely a legacy of Britain's imperial past" and the BBC "has always been seen by the British government as a particularly effective force for 'soft power'". Now, he says, it is "understandable that a [British] government preparing for Brexit would seek to reverse previous cuts to the World Service in order to try to re-engage with other parts of the world that Westminster and Whitehall now believe to be of increased importance after Britain's departure from the EU".

Throughout its history, he says, the BBC "has tended to be viewed in a positive – or at least benign – light by foreign audiences, certainly in comparison with other major broadcasters, and so successive governments have tended to be pretty hands off when it comes to the content of Britain's World Service programmes".

Not always. During the Suez Crisis, which followed the nationalisation of the Suez Canal in 1956 by Egypt's president Gamal Abdel Nasser, the BBC broadcast a speech by Hugh Gaitskell, the leader of the opposition,highly critical of the British government's decision to invade Egypt.

As the BBC's own record of those days recalls, the prime minister's office "called for parts of the speech to be edited out when it was broadcast on the Arabic Service ... so it wouldn't … undermine Britain's credibility". 

When the BBC refused, "there were … reports … that the government even considered taking it over"; the prime minister, Anthony Eden, "wanted the BBC to be as supportive of the government as it was in the Second World War".

Today a Britain unexpectedly isolated from Europe finds itself once again fighting, this time for its economic survival on the world stage.

"I don't think you could describe today's World Service as 'imperialist' in any meaningful way," says Professor Potter. "However, a government-funded World Service is clearly meant to serve Britain's foreign policy goals ... Why else would the government fund it?

"Whether you think it is a necessary evil or not depends on what you think about those foreign policy goals."