International Broadcasting: Public Diplomacy or Propaganda?

By Berit Braun.

Flipping through the channels available on my hotel TV, I stumbled not only onto Portuguese soap operas and Italian talent shows but also onto a channel that left me confused: On France24, an obviously not-French presenter discussed the current situation in Libya in heavily Irish-accented English. The next channel, Deutsche Welle, left me even more perplexed: German presenters spoke to German guests in more and less impeccable but heavily accented English. Why? Much to my surprise, Deutsche Welle’s English-language TV channel is not an initiative for Germans to practise their English but has a weekly audience of 55 million worldwide. A closer investigation reveals that Deutsche Welle and France 24 are just two of the many state-funded news outlets aimed at foreign audiences. Others include Qatar’s Al-Jazeera and Britain’s BBC World Service.

The concept of international broadcasting brings to mind Radio Free Europe during the Cold War, with millions of people across the world tuning into BBC radio to find out what was actually going on in their own country. This supports the idea that state media aimed at a foreign audience is benevolent: it provides reliable news during crises. States, however, do not simply invest millions of pounds to selflessly help others. Especially during the Cold War, broadcasting was used by both the US and the USSR to disseminate political ideas among each other’s domestic population and thus further their own foreign policy objectives.

Even during peacetime, however, these channels have an important function for a state’s foreign policy. Public diplomacy, which can be understood as a mixture of foreign propaganda, political marketing, nation branding and cross-cultural communication, is increasingly in demand. Indeed, in a world where the public, through democratic voting processes but also through popular movements and political engagement online, shape international relations more than ever before, public diplomacy has never been more vital. In this context, information and engagement with the public have become valuable for states to pursue internationally. A positive image among international audiences increases a state’s ‘soft power’. In an age of globalisation and information, this is increasingly important.

According to theorist Joseph Nye, “soft power is the ability to get ‘others to want the outcomes that you want’”, and is an incredibly cost-effective and low-risk strategy in comparison with ‘hard power’, i.e. military prowess. The UK government has even gone as far as to openly acknowledge the accumulation of soft power as an objective. Setting its foreign policy strategy in 2015, the National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review states that it aims to “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”.

Especially in a post-colonial context, however, international broadcasting remains problematic. BBC World Service – which, after all, used to be BBC Empire – maintains a strong presence on the African continent. Here, some say that while a physical colonial presence has ended, an effort to impose ‘British values’ (which are claimed to be universal) continues. Accusations of paternalistic motives being inherent within these broadcasting services further paint a picture of international broadcasting as a ‘soft’ continuation of colonial relations. In this context, it is perhaps unsurprising that the BBC World Service expanded its services targeting the public in former colonies and the Commonwealth only a few months after the Brexit vote.

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