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World Service chief says 'eroding BBC in UK' could open door for global propagandists

Covering the most powerful media companies to the smartest startups, former Independent media editor Ian Burrell examines the fraught problem of how news is funded today. Follow Ian @iburrell.

Moves by the Chinese state to sponsor training of the next generation of African journalists have alarmed Jamie Angus, the director of the BBC’s World Service Group.

Angus is concerned at China’s generosity in funding digital broadcasting infrastructure across the African continent, just as Beijing invests heavily in its China Global Television Network (CGTN), particularly its English language edition. He must also contend with the Kremlin-backed Russia Today (RT) network using its output to undermine the BBC’s reputation.

“We are living in an era where there is a global information war going on, and it’s going on all the time in every country in the world,” he says. “It’s a global war for influence around information and a lot of the people participating in it do not wish well to the UK and its people.”

The global market in English-language news is growing increasingly competitive, with generously backed state-sponsored players often producing thinly diluted propaganda. While the World Service receives state support, the BBC itself finds its future questioned by the UK’s new government with its funding model made the subject of a formal review.

“People need to be clear in this frenetic period around discussion of the BBC that you can’t have a strong World Service without having a strong BBC in the UK,” says Angus.

During the past four years, the World Service has enjoyed unprecedented resources with an additional £85m in funding to boost its global reach. That support will come under review later this year as the government assesses its spending priorities.

Angus knows he has to make his case once more. “The BBC World Service is one of the most effective ways of the UK maintaining its part in that ‘arms race’, and the scale of spending by lavishly state-backed foreign actors on for example international news in English should give everyone pause for thought and think that in the World Service we have already got a really significant player. We should double down and reinforce our advantage rather than allowing others – particularly China and Russia but also…some Gulf and Middle East states – to take over the international narrative around news coverage in English.”

Chinese influence grows apace. “The Chinese are offering to invest in journalism training in African countries,” he says. “That, I’m afraid, does not feel like a great fit to me because it’s clear that China does not have a commitment to freedom of expression and freedom of the press like the UK does.”

He has similar reservations over Chinese investment in African television infrastructure. “If you want to switch to digital television in an African country that is a very expensive capital investment and if Chinese broadcasters, who are arms of the Chinese state, are offering to essentially finance (it) on a lease agreement that can look like a very attractive prospect,” he says. “But in the end it gives China a great deal of control over the broadcasting critical infrastructure. It’s similar to the debate about Chinese influence on 5G services. This is something that policymakers in the UK need to think a lot about.”

Since extra World Service funding was introduced in 2016, the BBC’s global reach has grown from 308 million to 426 million last summer. The money enabled the BBC to introduce a Korean service and provide enhanced coverage for Russian speakers. India is now the BBC’s overseas market with an audience of 50 million, built from improved digital and television services. In Africa, where the BBC has launched a host of new language services, it now commands a weekly audience of 124 million.

“My case is very explicitly that the BBC World Service is already working at a scale that delivers excellent value for the UK taxpayer and licence fee payer around the world,” says Angus, outlining his pitch to government.

Since the UK’s departure from the European Union on 31 January, the World Service takes on an even more significant role, he maintains. “The UK has now exited the EU and in doing so exited its largest multi-lateral influence block and it is therefore much more focused on working out what other levers of influence it has outside the UK.” He argues that the “understanding of British values” which listeners to the World Service pick up from its content is “an immense benefit to the trade and aid mission that successive governments have followed”.

It is “one of the great pleasures of my job” that there is a consensus in Westminster that the World Service is a “good thing”, he says.

The prime minister, while a consistent critic of the BBC, is a former foreign secretary who understands the value of soft power. He backed a report last year, Global Britain: A Blueprint for the 21st Century, suggesting the World Service should be expanded at the expense of the foreign aid budget.

But Angus believes this is only possible if the core BBC is preserved. “People should be clear that you don’t get the benefits of the World Service alongside eroding the BBC fatally inside the UK.”

He accepts that it is “perfectly reasonable” to discuss potential alternatives to the BBC’s licence fee funding beyond the end of its current charter in 2027.

Angus took to social media recently to defend the BBC against a claim by Michael Portillo (a frequent BBC presenter) on Question Time (a BBC show) that the BBC World News television channel is “not a real channel”. In fact it has an audience of 101 million and is “the BBC’s most-watched channel”, Angus retorted.

He says he understands why licence fee payers are frustrated when they cannot find a BBC entertainment channel in foreign hotel rooms or access iPlayer from abroad. These things need to be reviewed, he suggests.

In the meantime, he is lobbying for World Service bulletins in Urdu, Hindi and Somali to be included on the iPlayer menu. “That would help expand understanding of what the BBC World Service does in its 42 different language services.”

In Africa, the BBC is pursuing its own initiatives in working with African journalists. For more than five years it has offered a bursary in honour of Komla Dumor, an African BBC presenter who died suddenly in 2014. BBC programming ranges from the investigative Africa Eye (which recently exposed a “sex for grades” scandal among teachers in West Africa) to She Word, aimed at female audiences across the continent. The output, claims Angus, is different from other international broadcasters working in Africa who “fly in, report on a famine and then leave”.

In a joint project with Hollywood star Angelina Jolie and Microsoft Education, the BBC is making My World, a show designed to help media literacy among children. Executive produced by Jolie and with a target age of 13, it has run for ten episodes on BBC World News and been distributed in 20 countries from the United States to India. Angus praises Jolie for being “highly active” in the production of a show which he hopes the BBC can put on a “more permanent footing”. He accepts that the BBC is having a tough time reaching teenage audiences. “Both in the UK and globally it’s something we need to do more work on.”

His job is not made easier by the BBC having many enemies, both in UK political circles and further afield. When the BBC launched My World, the Russian broadcaster RT covered the story, branding it the “BBC’s fake news show for youths” and posting a sneering caption that the BBC was “Doing everything to rescue reputation”.

Angus describes this as “backchat to us from RT”. He has little respect for the Moscow channel, recalling its coverage of the poisoning of former KGB spy Sergei Skripal, when RT interviewed the two suspects and they claimed to have been in Salisbury on an innocent tourist trip. “It became absolutely clear that RT was in no sense a serious news operation,” he says. “It was an absolutely explicitly propaganda operation on behalf of the Russian state. It lost any claim it might ever once have had to objective credibility.”

This is the complex environment in which the BBC’s global services operate. “This is a 10 to 20- year strategic issue around how a country like the UK exerts its influence in the world,” says Angus.

As they consider the organisation’s future, British politicians should understand that Netflix, Amazon and Sky aren’t the BBC’s only competitors.

Ian Burrell's column, The News Business, is published on The Drum each Thursday. Follow Ian on Twitter @iburrell

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