How To Attract Publics & Influence States

News & Opinion on how countries are aiming to utilise 'Soft Power', 'Public Diplomacy' and 'Nation Branding'

A Public Diplomacy Defence of the BBC

Over the past couple of months the BBC to have lurched from one crisis to another. As such it has come under a torrent of criticism, as the commercial media have relished in its woes. Pillared across the media claims that “such an organisation is increasingly irrelevant in the modern world” has been trumpeted with more intensity and frequency. Yet, while the BBC may not be the perfect corporation and avoiding the debates domestically, one should not underestimate or even question the role it should continue to play; particularly as part of Britain’s ‘public diplomacy’. For Britain’s ‘soft power’ it is still a valuable attribute. 

Founded in 1922 the BBC, affectionately known as ‘Auntie’, has morphed into not just world’s largest broadcaster but also one of the most trusted media brands, not just domestically, but internationally. A 2011 Media Brand Values survey suggested that it was the most trusted of all international broadcasters. Aside from serving a domestic audience, the BBC also delivers news and information from London to across the globe, with the BBC World Service the primary output of this; although it does share some of the facilities of the domestic service. For over eighty years the BBC has expanded its reach around the world, and while technological advancements and financial pressures have decreased the scope and type of services offered, it remains a dominant broadcaster; broadcasting in 27 languages as well as English and to a reported audience of over 180 million.

It remains the voice of Britain overseas; making an enormous contribution to how Britain is perceived internationally, playing a special role in providing and acting as an alternative source of news for a wide range of audiences. Despite having its operating costs funded mainly by direct grants from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and the BBC domestically acting as a public service, the BBC has a reputation unrivalled around the world based on impartial, authoritative broadcasting. The BBC’s ethos and values are closely tied to impartiality, honesty and objectivity. It is relied upon, worldwide, as a source of trustworthy news, opinion and information. For years, Mark Tulley, the BBC’s correspondent in Delhi was known as the “voice of India”. As such the BBC through the World Service has gained a reputation that is unrivalled by any other media institution.

Reliability & Impartiality

Its reputation precedes so much of the work it does and a persuasive case can be made that the BBC, despite being a public service broadcaster, is the most influential broadcaster around the world, as it is seen as a “source of reliable and impartial information that transcends borders, regions and cultures”, helping to present a balanced British view of international and domestic developments.

It is clear that with the importance of ‘soft power’ “the battle for hearts and minds is played out at the level of international broadcasting globally, yet while countries such as China and Qatar who have invested heavily in a public international broadcasting tool, have come seen their international broadcasting tool come under criticism for bias and for acting as a propaganda tool, the BBC has avoided this, continuing as politically independent. While ‘public diplomacy’ is not an explicit objective of either the BBC or the World Service, having such a valued reputation will undoubtedly being positive public diplomacy gains for Britain, particularly as they have unparalleled ability to reach out across the globe; providing a “presentation of a balanced British view of those developments and an accurate and effective representation of British life, institutions and achievements”.


The recent crises, particularly over a perceived cover-up of the Jimmy Saville scandal and both the dropping of a Newsnight documentary and the airing of another have damaged the BBC’s reputation which has taken years too developed. Questions have been raised of “how is [it] that an organisation with strict journalistic standards like the BBC failed so colossally”. The crisis has struck at the heart of the organisations brand essence, a crisis centred on trust, impartiality and professionalism; three values which have lay at the heart of the BBC and the building blocks of its reputation abroad. Values which have ensured that the BBC has become so admired have been undermined. But it is not and should not be irreversible or lead to questions surrounding the BBC’s future role.

The scandals are likely to continue to make headlines for months to come, piling further pressure and embarrassment on the media organisation, and the BBC undoubtedly faces an uphill struggle to win back viewers’ trust both domestically and internationally. In the short and possibly long-term this will indirectly surely impact upon Britain’s ‘public diplomacy’ and ‘soft power’ efforts. But while it is important that the scandal has prompted a fierce debate about the both the past and present culture of the BBC, and raised questions over trust, we should acknowledge the crucial and unique place it retains within the media landscape. No other media organisation turns the spotlight on itself as the BBC does. After John Humphrey’s questioning of the BBC Director General on the BBC’s Today Programme ensured that George Entwistle had to resign, as one commentator has acknowledged “it is worth recalling that absolutely no print media would interrogate their owners or bosses in such a way and not would any of the BBC’s commercial rivals”.

While the BBC should be not exempt of criticism, we perhaps have to remember the role and the importance the BBC plays not just domestically but also abroad. Yes, the BBC has failed and yes the BBC needs to acknowledge its recent mistakes and be “absolutely sure that this could never happen again” but as Jonathan Dimbleby has stated the disturbing relish with which the critics have laid into the BBC has caused it to become a witch-hunt that has gone way over proportion.

Many including Kofi Annan have admired the work it has achieved in promoting Britain’s cultural interests abroad. At a time when the role and integrity of the BBC has come under intense scrutiny domestically, perhaps we should as well and remember the goodwill it has abroad and the important role it plays within foreign policy and ‘public diplomacy’.  Would any other British commercial broadcaster come close to the reputation that the BBC has built up? Possibly, but it is unlikely particularly when others such as Al Jazeera, CNN are looked on at with such scepticism. The BBC avoids this. A world without the BBC would be hugely detrimental for Britain, both domestically and internationally.

The UK remains one the world’s most adept ‘soft power’ states and the BBC is an integral part. It has to continue to play this role; a crucial dual role both in enabling the British public to become better informed about the global context and an international audience becoming better informed about a British context, the country’s values and ideals. The crimes of one man, or men shouldn’t change that. As Sian Boyle, in the Huffington Post, has commented, “it’s important to remember that the BBC has produced excellent journalism, and in the scheme of things, a couple of (albeit very) bad decisions don’t constitute the abolishment of…the BBC’s entire ninety-year-old reputation”.



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This entry was posted on November 18, 2012 by in Public Diplomacy and tagged , , , , , , .
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