“We Didn’t Start the Fire” is a column in collaboration with Foreign Policy for America’s NextGen network, a premier group of next generation foreign policy leaders committed to principled American engagement in the world. This column elevates the voices of diverse young leaders as they establish themselves as authorities in their areas of expertise and expose readers to new ideas and priorities. Here you can read about emergent perspectives, policies, risks, and opportunities that will shape the future of US foreign policy.
The British Broadcasting Corporation silenced BBC Arabic, its oldest foreign-language radio service this past January after 85 years on the air. An end of an era in broadcasting, the shutdown is emblematic of the deep strategic uncertainties and budget constraints confronting the West’s international broadcasters. That the retrenchment comes amid an era of resurgent authoritarianism and disinformation makes its loss all the more acute.
The US media industry is awash with speculation about the next big merger. Challenged by anemic consumer demand and rising cost pressures, storied organizations are striving for scale in a bid for survival. But, until now, the most promising combination isn’t being considered at all because it would be unprecedented and involve two organizations not known for their binge-worthy fare: a merger of the BBC World Service and the collection of entities governed by the US Agency for Global Media, the most well-known of which is Voice of America. A merger would address both organizations’ challenges while creating a stronger voice for freedom of information and expression against global disinformation and repression. At present, the BBC World Service confronts a tenuous long-run funding landscape while the US Agency for Global Media, funded nearly twice as much, lags its British counterpart in prestige.
The BBC World Service reaches a self-reported weekly audience of 365 million on an annual budget of approximately $400 million, mostly sourced from the increasingly vulnerable BBC license fee assessed on UK households and a government top-up. Budget constraints led the broadcaster last year to transition more of its language services to digital-only and cut nearly 400 jobs. Meanwhile, US broadcasters reported reaching 354 million on a budget request for 2023 of $840 million. The BBC generally outpaces US international service and commercial broadcasters in recognition and trust. (In fact, in the United States itself, BBC News ranks above all but local news in perceptions of trust, according to the Reuters Institute.)
Together, a BBC American World Service would engage more people, across more channels, with richer content, for less than their current combined spend. Radio broadcasts, for example, would be restored, rightfully recognizing their importance in countries subject to digital firewalls. With a commitment to authoritative information and a mission to facilitate mutual understanding abroad, exemplify shared values, and spotlight transnational issues such as climate change, the combined service would be a global beacon. A merger, reinforced by a more secure funding outlook and a new organizational structure, would enable bold new efforts to serve the world, particularly its youth, and reinforce US and British soft power.
The need for an authoritative international broadcaster is as pronounced as ever. Freedom of speech and information form the bedrock of a free society and are under pressure globally. Reporters without Borders’ latest World Press Freedom Index finds that 70 countries, constituting most of the world’s population, are subject to “difficult” or “very serious” press freedom violations. A combined service would be best positioned to push back against democratic decline and offer a platform to the world’s most vulnerable voices.
A merger, reinforced by a more secure funding outlook and a new organizational structure, would enable bold new efforts to serve the world, particularly its youth, and reinforce US and British soft power.
A revitalized BBC American World Service would better compete with China’s multifaceted foreign-language efforts, which has aggressively expanded its footprint in print, and on radio, television, and online as part of President Xi Jinping’s call to “tell China’s story well.” Recent reporting suggests that China is increasingly advancing its messaging less through overt channels, such as its CGTN network, but via influencers and deep-fake anchors. The country has also undertaken efforts to train cadres of sympathetic journalists from developing countries and provide free content for local media. In all, China is estimated to have spent billions of dollars on its foreign-language communications, albeit with limited soft power impact to date. A combined service would be better equipped to respond competitively to China’s and other authoritarian broadcasters, such as Russia’s RT.
The organization would be overseen by three boards separately responsible for policy, strategy, and standards. Membership of the first two would be appointed by their respective governments in proportion to their share of funding while the latter would be a self-governing group of journalists. US Congress and the British Parliament would exercise joint oversight in a further opportunity for novel collaboration. Far from complicating their work, joint oversight could potentially strengthen the combined broadcaster’s autonomy, complicating any attempt at political interference from either country.
To ensure an ambitious, effective operation, a performance-driven funding formula would be based on three tiers: a guaranteed base driven by the number of people living in unfree media environments or targeted by adversary broadcasters and two bonus tiers based on the number of persons passively reached and actively engaged. The bonus tiers could be reinvested in operations, programming, and talent as management saw fit. The organization would also be permitted to raise funds from nonpartisan foundations from both nations.
The United States once prohibited Americans’ ability to access the content produced in their name, a restriction which was withdrawn as it became untenable in the Internet age. Accordingly, while the combined services’ content would be accessible to citizens of both countries, it would not be the intended audience so as not to compete with the vibrant domestic news industry. (The BBC could maintain its domestic and international commercial news operations and engage in appropriate resource, talent, and content sharing with the new World Service.)
The BBC World Service’s resonance among the British people as one pillar of its international identity would likely be the most significant obstacle to a merger. Moreover, research has affirmed the valuable soft power role the World Service plays for the United Kingdom in terms of perceptions, willingness to visit, and doing business with the country. A successful merger must do more than assure the World Service’s fiscal stability. It must also keep and honor the iconic brand and continue spotlighting life and culture in the United Kingdom.
By contrast, a far smaller proportion of Americans are aware of the portfolio of international broadcasters that operate in their name and have previously been the subject of proposals for consolidation. Long-standing unease about America’s international broadcasters among some in Washington, fearful of intruding upon a free and independent press, has hindered the services from achieving their full potential. A merger that created some distance from these pressures and placed their talent under leadership energized and not burdened by its unique mission could make the United States’ voice abroad even more resonant than it is today.
Critics of this proposal might suggest instead a partnership that fell short of a merger via resource sharing or explicit division of areas of geographic responsibility. Presently the two countries’ global broadcasters have no meaningful collaboration, and a previous attempt by the BBC World Service’s chairs arm to apply for US funding was criticized by some American commentators. A partnership short of a merger would invite prolonged governance complications and fail to realize the full operational potential of one streamlined organization.
DEFENDING SHARED VALUES TOGETHER
A merger of Britain’s and America’s international broadcasters would be among the most visible and practical manifestations of the “special relationship” at work between the two countries, amplifying their shared values. Invariably, there would be initial and future misalignments, such as the United States disproportionate spending targeting Cuba, which a professional, independent organization can be trusted to navigate successfully.
Little consequence will be decided by which companies win the “streaming wars.” But for the BBC World Service and US international broadcasters, a merger that honored the best of both organizations’ traditions and capabilities can play a critical role in defending and advancing freedom for decades to come.