Media: Britannia rules the airwaves: The BBC World Service is 60 today. John Tusa, managing director, looks at its future and proposes a plan of action

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The Independent Online
FOR THE past few years, and certainly since well before the Cold War ended, the BBC World Service has been redefining its functions. While the World Service had grown over 60 years under the impulse of specific historical movements - anti-fascism, the Cold War, decolonisation, to name but three - it needed a more inclusive theoretical definition for its long-term editorial purposes. This fresh definition had to fit broadcasting activities into the new world as it was already taking shape in the late Eighties, so that it would not have to find a new theory of, and justification for, broadcasting internationally once the great ideological overlay of the Cold War and the associated East-West rivalry had vanished. Many of our competitors are still struggling to find one.

We sought a theoretical framework for international broadcasting from Britain that would not turn on the hinge of a particular political dispute or ideological difference, nor on a particular period of history or the immediate needs of a particular part of the globe. The redefinition and repositioning have been successful.

Important as ideological disputes, historical movements and governmental policy needs are, broadcasting that is defined by these needs rather than by the nature of the journalists' activity will always be blown hither and thither by the short-term shifts of ideology, politics or history.

This base defines broadcasting in terms of its essential component - journalism and the communication of information and knowledge - rather than the demands of national foreign policy. It must be relevant to all audiences world-wide, rather than particular audiences, sometimes arbitrarily defined as those in closed or media-poor societies. It must appeal to a global rather than an elite audience. It must be international, defined by its subject matter, rather than 'foreign', defined by an unusual form of funding, typically from a national government.

Such a definition permits the World Service to respond to the needs of the audience where the need for information is great, rather than limiting it to areas where foreign policy has determined that information needs should be satisfied. There is nothing new or shocking in this proposition; it is the 'secret', though a frequently and publicly articulated one, on which the World Service has operated. We now need formal recognition that our operational definitions are the ones which work, that broadcasting theory has been justified in practice.

As a result of this theoretical repositioning, the World Service is ideally placed to take advantage of an exploding media and communications environment whose full dimensions are only imperfectly perceived. Technology will allow our programmes to be received in better quality, in more places, and as part of the 'normal' domestic media environment, as distinct from the 'abnormal' international environment that shortwave broadcasts are seen to inhabit.

The technological hardware for home information and entertainment is developing fast, but without a comparable development of 'software' - the radio programmes - to marry to the increasingly available, increasingly user-friendly hardware. World Service broadcasts are in demand from the developers of the hardware because they provide them with the programmes, audience and credibility. The World Service has never been in such a position of real market strength. Britain stands to gain from having developed World Service programmes for 60 years. The time to reap the rewards of long-term investment is here.

But the opportunities are bigger still. In the 21st century the politics of knowledge will become an area of intense competition. Whoever can sell, present or provide knowledge most effectively and credibly will be behaving as a post-Cold War, medium-sized international power should. Far from Britain saying its international broadcasting role should be surrendered, as it sits ill with a power that no longer has a world role, militarily or politically, it should draw the opposite conclusion.

World Service and international broadcasting are important because they play a role in so many different activities. In part, the broadcasts operate like aid, transferring knowledge and skills; they have an element of cultural advertisement; they are an instrument of informal diplomacy; they bring individuals in touch with a nation; they are non-coercive. Together, they make up a formidable cocktail of characteristics and attributes, one to be relished and valued, not diluted.

A six-point plan for the future

1. The BBC World Service's editorial and journalistic credibility depend on its existence within an independent, chartered BBC. Any threat to the institution of the BBC risks damaging the World Service.

2. Leave the World Service under the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Do not for tidiness' sake put it under National Heritage. This would proliferate bureaucratic supervision and diminish effectiveness.

3. Give the World Service still more freedom to determine output.

4. Depoliticise the prescription. Let the broadcasters determine which languages they should broadcast in. They should know where the broadcasting opportunities lie.

5. Do not give up the drive to improve audibility. More overseas relay stations are needed. If they are not built, the consequences will be dire.

6. Do not cut chunks off the World Service that make no difference to the national budget. Remember the lessons of the early Eighties. Do not undo what has been done.

(Photograph omitted)