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BBC vs RT: Media wars, diplomacy and owning the message

BBC vs RT: Media wars, diplomacy and owning the message

Worried about the increased power and reach of state-owned broadcasters such as the Kremlin-backed Russia Today, it appears the BBC hopes to stem the trend of endless rounds of funding cuts by seeking government money to create a new channel to broadcast into Russia. It's also proposing services aimed at reaching North Korea and to increase its penetration of the Arab world.

The rise of state-sponsored television channels, such as Russia Today, Qatar-owned Al Jazeera, Chinese-run CCTV and Turkey's soon to be launched TRT World, has re-shaped the media landscape.

While audiences for these channels are difficult to gauge, one common thread is undeniable: the pockets of those financing these channels are very, very deep. The budget for Al Jazeera has never been disclosed but a financial manager at the channel once told me, 'Just think of a number and then add a zero.' CCTV is also known to have a vast budget.

The rise of soft power television news channels broadcasting into an international market has boomed in the past 20 years. Japan's NHK World, Germany's Deutsche Welle and Paris-based France 24 are seen as nonthreatening to Western governments. Other offerings, however, such as Iran’s Press TV have come under fire. The Iranian regime-backed channel was banned from broadcasting in the UK in 2012.

The latest entrant to the crowded market is TRT World, an English-language channel based in Istanbul. TRT World will start broadcasting in October, just weeks before the fiercely contested Turkish general election will be held in November. The channel, an extension of the state broadcaster TRT, is expected to have a pro-Erdogan agenda. [fold]

For years, the BBC World Service, as well other core new services, have been struggling to maintain their output after a series of budget cuts. In 2010, the BBC was forced to take over the £245 million budget for the World Service that had previously been financed by a Foreign and Commonwealth Office grant. Since then, the BBC has had to finance the flagship radio service, broadcast in over 25 languages and reaching nearly 200 million people per week, through its licence fee, a payment made by residents of the UK.

Following suit, Australia's international broadcaster, the Australia Network, was axed by the Abbott Government in 2014. Previously broadcast into 46 countries in the Asia Pacific region, the ABC-run network's passing was lamented by many as the end of an era for a potent force in public diplomacy. Others saw it as the demise of an inefficient and out-dated model.

The issue of relevance is pertinent. In an increasingly digital world, where news in consumed on smartphones and shared on social media, the logic of the expensive behemoth of television broadcasting has to be questioned. Al Jazeera America, the offshoot of Al Jazeera English tasked with taking on the American market, reached a paltry 17,000 viewers one year after its launch in 2013. The Qatari Government paid US$500 million to launch the channel after buying Al Gore’s Current TV. Hundreds of millions more were spent to set up and run it.

Today, the challenge for these soft power broadcasters is to translate their brands and content into a effective digital strategy. The new BBC proposal includes a bold plan to 'build the best English-language digital news service in the world,' perhaps as a direct response to Russia Today's powerful digital offensive.

Russia Today is considered the most successful model of all the networks in the digital realm. Its digital output is prolific. Re-branding itself as the benign-sounding 'RT', Russia Today has created a potent social media presence. It has more than one million followers on its English Twitter account. The state-owned channel broadcasts television news on dedicated English, Arabic and Spanish channels. Intended as a soft power news source to improve Russia’s image abroad, it now offers a constant stream of Kremlin-approved 'news content', hammering out the message on foreign policy issues such as Syria and Ukraine.

The Conservative Government's attempts at reducing the power of the BBC in the domestic realm have had the unintended consequence of weakening what is one of the UK’s most potent diplomatic tools abroad. Countering the information torrent from often hostile foreign sources while cutting budgets is a serious diplomatic challenge. Western governments seem increasingly concerned that state-owned media outlets are preventing audiences from accessing impartial and independent information. In their efforts to counter this, they may need to reconsider their approach and find far deeper pockets.

Disclosure: Anneliese Mcauliffe has worked at the BBC, Al Jazeera and the ABC.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user BBC World Service.

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