What price the promotion of liberty?

Today is one of those rare occasions on which I have a little bit of niggle at DK over a post or two at his place which don’t, in my opinion, do him justice. By and large he’s an intelligent sort and writes with a degree of wit and passion which makes for an entertaining read even when I disagree with him, which is less often than some might think, but there are times when his passions get the better of him and he forgets to put his thinking head and appreciate some of the subtleties and nuances of the issues he takes on.

Take this post on the BBC’s new Arabic language TV channel, for example:

Via Vindico, it seems that our telly-tax funded BBC has an exciting new project.

The BBC has launched a new Arabic language TV channel.

The channel is free to everyone in North Africa and the Middle East with a satellite or cable connection.

Right. And since nothing comes for free, who the hell is paying for it?

The service is the BBC’s first publicly-funded international TV service.

It has an annual budget of US $50m (UK £25m). This comes partly from a UK government grant, and partly from BBC World Service funds freed up by the closure of radio services, mainly to Eastern Europe.

Oh, right. Well, next time you pay your £135 (or whatever it is now) TV-tax, you can feel all warm and righteous because you are allowing the BBC to entertain people in the Middle East with £25 million per annum of your money.

And, of course, it is our money that allows the BBC to put local channels, which can’t extort funds from the British people, at a competitive disadvantage, just as the Beeb does over here.

Isn’t it nice that the BBC can be so generous with your cash?

There’s nothing particularly unusual in DK’s take on this story. He is opposed to the state funding of media organisations, generally, which I know perfectly well and wouldn’t ordinarily comment on because its one of things we know we disagree on and life’s usually way to short to get into debating a question on which we’re unlikely to ever arrive on a mutually agreeable position. But, on this occasion, there’s a rather more nuanced point about the BBC’s activities that DK looks to have missed, one that’s worth picking up, not because it’ll cause to rethink his position on the BBC generally but because it may cause to see this particular project in a slightly different light.

The key statement in all this is that this new TV service, which will compete directly with Al Jazeera, will be funded partly from a government grant and partly from funds redirected from the closure of a number of the BBC’s World Service radio stations which previously served Eastern Europe.

What this TV service is not funded by is revenue from TV licences, in fact the World Service has never been funded in this way  since its creation in 1932, as the British Empire Service. The World Service has always been funded directly by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and it may well surprise DK and others on the political right (perhaps, only momentarily), that its is matter of public record (i.e. in Hansard) that in 1985, in response to a parliamentary question which queried the value of the World Service, none other than Margaret Thatcher has this to say in its defence:

‘The World Service earns every penny we put into it, by promoting our world-view and policy. It has done so in the past and will continue to do so in the future’.

The World Service is editorially independent of the British Government and prides itself in its continued adherence to Reithian values – public service, high standards, probity, and universality – and it precisely these values which have made the World Service the single most respected broadcaster in those parts of the world that are denied access to a free and independent press, where it is frequently the only reliable source of news and current events not subject to the direct editorial control of the ‘local’ government. The spark of genius that has underpinned the work of the World Service since the 1930s has been the understanding that providing citizens living in unfree societies with a fair, open and balanced news service is far more difficult to counteract than any efforts to pump relentless, and blatantly obvious, propaganda at them, a lesson which the American’s never got to grips with in creating Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and realised only belated (between 1959 and 1976) in regards to its Voice of America service, which was initially prohibited from broadcasting internally so as not to expose American citizens to their own government’s propaganda efforts.

As the report cited by DK notes, part of the funding for this new station comes from the closure of radio services which previously served Eastern Europe, part of a general scaling back, over the last ten years, of services which came into being during the Second World War,  broadcasting to occupied territory, and which latterly served former communist states in Eastern Europe. While the Foreign Office does not exert editorial control over the World Service – for all that the World Service does, when the situation demand, take the British line of key world events in which we have a direct interest – it does exert a direct influence over where and to whom the World Service broadcasts and, in that sense, the redirection of the BBC’s efforts away from former communist – now democratic – states in Europe towards services in Arabic and Persian, which target the Islamic World, makes perfect sense in terms of Britain’s global and foreign policy interests.

It’s worth noting that, in comments over at DK’s, John B has already weighed in with the key argument:

In theory, transmitting British values to Middle Easteners rather than the crazed antisemitic propaganda that state TV networks pump out could save a lot more than £50m a year in wars, terrorism, etc.

There’s certainly a stronger minarchist argument for transmitting propaganda to foreigners to improve national security than there is for, well, most things government does…

Minarchist argument or not, the raison d’etre of the World Service has been, for sixty years, precisely that of transmitting ‘British’ values – I’d actually say it was more the universal values of a free and democratic society – to the citizens of societies who have neither freedom or democracy and that spending £25 million a year on the promotion of liberty, whether or not it improves our national security, looks like good value to me…

…just as it did to Margaret Thatcher and to every British Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary since 1939.

2 thoughts on “What price the promotion of liberty?

  1. Well, that just shows that one should not simply toss off quick posts whilst looking for something else, eh?

    I have put a mea culpa update on the post, linking back here…


  2. Noted already DK – and very graciously done, if I might add.

    Actually its an easy enough thing to call wrong if you’ve not come across anything on the history of the World Service before – it is still the Beeb but its not the Beeb we’re necessarily used to.

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