By Brett Daniel Shehadey
Special Contributor for In Homeland Security
The UK has a population of some 64 million people. America has a population of around 315 million. The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) World Service and World News recently reached a record viewership with a global audience estimate of 265 million people weekly. The American equivalent, as of 2014, has an estimated circulation of less than 215 million each week, according to the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG). By population alone, the UK reaches four times its own population while the U.S. reaches less than its population.
Everyone knows about the BBC. It is huge. It has its own studios, TV shows, radio, and most importantly it is well funded and it is allowed to generate operational income from its services. The BBC World News budget is around 2.2 billion state funded pounds ($3.4 billion dollars). Almost no one knows about the BBG and the IBB. In comparison, the BBG budget is under $800 million.
Rather than revolutionize the BBG with a massive overhaul and turn it into an unrivaled mutated giant rivaling the first-rate BBC World News Service, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill last July to eliminate the BBG completely. House Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee Ed Royce said, “Who is going to offset that [Russian] propaganda? Our best weapon in this informational battle, the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the BBG, is totally defunct.”
Royce and other opponents want to turn the networks run by BBG into a public diplomacy tool, rather than a more traditional news service. The former Director of Voice of America Alan Heil said, “If that bill becomes law, VOA’s worldwide following on radio, TV and online channels would plummet precipitously. The Voice’s greatest asset, its credibility, would be in shreds.”
America’s many half-hearted steps to enter into international broadcasting and national media manifested in: the U.S. Information Agency (disbanded), the International Broadcasting Board (IBB), the Voice of America (VOA), Radio Free Europe (RFE), Radio Free Asia, Middle East Broadcasting Networks (MBN), Marti and others. None of these have ever reached their objectives of defeating or reversing the spread of socialism/communism or jihadist doctrine so popular today. The problem is a lack of funds, strategy, coordination, imagination and grandiose aspiration.
People want to listen to an alternative message all over the world. The BBG reports an increase of 50 million viewers since 2010. Part of this was due to better content and there are many more strategies to be employed but funding and expanding are the real hurdle. There is no real reason why Americans could not be three times as big as their sister state’s global media framework.
Washington has been talking the talk of fighting its enemies abroad in ideological warfare for decades and has never totally committed to walk the walk. It has since had to close down many programs due to costs. It repeatedly lacks the infrastructure to reach the world and consequently too much of the world speaks for America and covers their misdeeds. America now has less than 215 million viewers out of seven billion people on the planet. What is wrong with the picture of a state holding a $17 trillion economy and not in constant contact with the globe? Why not reach an audience of several billion people on the planet?
While the costs of reaching more and more people are getting cheaper, the major obstacles surrounding the principle of international broadcasting have included: (1) an adversarial media lobby and the conflicting private network regime interests (six conglomerates control about 90 percent of all the media in the U.S.). (2) There is the conservative fear of adding more domestic government propaganda which is partisan, accusing NPR, for example, of playing politics. (3) There is the lingering liberal belief that Americans do not need any national information outlets biased to the state and that nations should not feel this independent fifth branch of government or that the truth of liberal democracy’s greatness will triumph over the evil tyrannical regimes inevitably and without any engineered words or strategies to combat state and non-state propaganda.
The BBG has already made a recent overture to resemble the BBC, with its strategy of “one organization, many brands” and intention of “launching a Global News Network” in its 2012-2016 Strategic Plan and budget proposals. The BBC gets a grant from the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office of some $3.4 billion. Meanwhile, the budget for the BBG is less than one-third of that. The problem is not just the money, because even with double the money, they are still far behind the British model, discounting the domestic side of the BBC. Aside from the operational funds, they need seed money and that will be billions of dollars in overhaul expenses.
Aside from inborn funding, structural and managerial problems, the BBG lacks: thinking outside of its box, total commitment backed by Congress and the American people. Fusing the American design with the British model seems like a good option.
BBG’s stated mission and agenda is: “to inform, engage, and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy” and to “deliver accurate news and information to significant and strategic audiences overseas…to serve as a trustworthy source of news and as an example of a free, professional press in countries that lack independent media.”
The BBC mission shares a liberal mission: “To enrich people’s lives with programmes and services that inform, educate and entertain.” It sponsors liberal values and is run by an independent trust with a bold vision to “be the most creative organization in the world.”
What the politicians fail to understand is that the liberal democracy mission is in information warfare is vital over the long term, spread out amid a global population boom, being fed fabricated lies, state-biased news and lacking the freedom of the press. This project empowers us and them. It is not just about national interest. Educating the foreign audiences to be liberals is the most vital function of all international norms, politics, trade and peaceful relations for the future of America’s international relations with the next generation.
If the House wants to scrap the BBG on the basis that it is not working and is grossly mismanaged, they could use the same logic to scrap a host of other departments and agencies that are less essential. Most likely, this is another effort to decrease funding to America’s information presence overseas.
If the BBG is replaced, Washington would do well to incorporate the business approaches of the BBC and other successful models that mix entertainment, education and news with a massive stockpile of programs for the foreign audience to consume. But it needs to target an audience in the billions, relative to its size and global role, if it is going to be as successful as the UK.