One would think that the world has bigger things to worry about than the reform of a radio station. But when that radio station is the BBC (which, of course, is not just a radio station but a broadcasting behemoth on TV and on the Internet as well), the issue is less trivial than it might seem.
For the BBC is more than just Britain’s preeminent media outlet. The BBC is the global voice of the West, and the corporation’s reform is a matter of concern for millions of listeners around the world—and for foreign policy analysts, too.
Early in its first term, the government of British Prime Minister David Cameron decided to put an overhaul of Auntie Beeb on the agenda. The case was easy to make. The BBC had grown hugely in recent decades, not only multiplying its radio and TV channels but also building up a massive Internet presence and turning itself into a worldwide entertainment giant with popular formats like Top Gear, the world’s leading car show.
The BBC had become an unruly monster of an organization, parts of which were defying oversight: celebrity journalists were earning massive incomes, and scandal was rife. Also, the BBC is financed largely through a quasi-tax paid by anyone in the UK who watches TV, regardless of usage of the corporation’s products. And many Conservatives in Britain are eternally enraged about what they see as a general left-leaning bias in the BBC’s reporting.
So all the good and bad reasons for reform converged when the UK government decided to shake things up. A green paper was published in July 2015, and a big public debate ensued.
The Tories’ opponents accuse the government of conducting an ideologically motivated crusade against unwanted journalism. Others support the idea of clipping the entertainment parts of the BBC so that taxpayers’ money is not wasted on fluffy formats like Strictly Come Dancing, a show featuring celebrities and professional dancers, to allow the broadcaster to focus more on serious programs such as documentaries, informative content, and, of course, news reporting.
Many more arguments are being brought to the fore on all sides, and the discussion has all the characteristics of a classic domestic political debate, deeply specific to the country in which it happens and interesting to that constituency only.
Only in this case, the stakes are much higher.
The #BBC is a global public good unrivaled by any of its competitors.Tweet This
The BBC is not just a British affair. It is the most important media outlet in the world. While some in Britain might accuse the corporation of biased reporting, international audiences see it as the voice of reason. The quality of its programs is unmatched not only by privately owned media but also by comparable state-run enterprises in other countries. The BBC is a global public good, made in the UK, unrivaled by any of its competitors, be they Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, CNN, Al Jazeera, or Deutsche Welle.
The BBC reports from every corner of the planet, and what it creates is the most important voice of liberal democracy anywhere in the world. Just by reporting in the way it does, the BBC stands for what hundreds of millions of people around the globe crave: uncensored news, a variety of opinions, critical questioning, the search for truth, and the story behind the story.
No other international outlet can match the importance of the BBC for demonstrating the power of liberal Western values, achieved not only through the organization’s famed World Service but also through its plethora of channels, many of them available online. Only the U.S. presidential election cycle—often seen as a joke in the West itself—has a similar soft-power impact on political debates and desires worldwide in the way it publicly celebrates the open society and the free, publicly scrutinized competition for power.
It is no surprise that the illiberal regimes of Russia and the Middle East crave nothing so much as broadcasting power similar to that of the BBC. That is why so many of them invest massively in international news channels modeled on the BBC—but without its liberal ethos.
What if that voice is damaged by the reform efforts of the British government? One can only hope that BBC reform in Britain will not damage the broadcasting power of Western liberal democracy around the world. Because this is what’s at stake. One can only hope that the responsible players in London have a sense of what they are playing with.
Plans unveiled on September 7 for significant investment in the World Service seem to point in the right direction, but the full effects of the proposed changes have yet to be seen. Hopefully, the number of BBC foreign-language services will not be further reduced. Hopefully, the network of correspondents and offices around the world will not be cut. Hopefully, the number of frequencies on all bandwidths in all continents will not be slashed.
One must hope that reform of the #BBC will not be guided by ideological fervor.Tweet This
To be sure, the BBC is in obvious need of reform. But one must hope that this reform will not be guided by ideological fervor, the currently prevailing sentiment of British introspection, and the Little Englander attitudes that have so permeated the political discourse in the UK.
By keeping the BBC independent, big, international, and comprehensive in its approach, the UK government not only defends British soft power. It also defends the one instrument that has arguably done more to spread the ideas of freedom and democracy in the world than most military interventions and large parts of Western development aid. Today, as the world celebrates the International Day of Democracy, this is an important message to those in charge of reforming the world’s broadcaster.