In 1999 Kofi Annan described the BBC World Service (WS) as “perhaps Britain’s greatest gift to the world this century.”  Whilst its value to the world is clear, it is not easy to define exactly what benefit it brings to the government that pays for it.  The relationship between WS and the United Kingdom (UK) government has always required careful definition.  WS is funded directly by Grant-in-Aid from Parliament, and its funding is administered within the public diplomacy budget of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO); so it would be tempting to try to evaluate the effectiveness of WS in contributing to the UK government’s foreign policy objectives.  But throughout its history the editorial independence of WS has been strictly maintained; it does not seek to improve the image of Britain or directly influence public support for UK foreign policy.

In the report on a wide-ranging review of UK public diplomacy (PD) in 2005, Lord Carter of Coles gave a helpful description of the relationship:

Public diplomacy is arguably not the primary objective of the World Service, but it is inevitable that in providing an internationally renowned and highly valued service that there will be positive public diplomacy gains for the country associated with that brand.[1]

Thus in order to contribute to PD, WS need only continue doing that which it does best.  And while it may be impossible to quantify the contribution it makes, there is a clear rationale for evaluating its effectiveness purely in terms of its own objectives.

There is more that can be said though, thanks to recent developments on either side.  In 2008 the FCO published Engagement: Public Diplomacy in a Globalised World, a collection of articles describing new approaches to PD.  As Dr. Nicholas Cull puts it, “the best public diplomacy begins with listening.”[2] The contributors to Engagement go much further, and the language in this document is concerned with shared awareness, multilateralism and debate.  Meanwhile, WS has sought to develop the concept of the ‘global conversation.’  It aims to go beyond ‘top-down’ presentation of news and to become a forum for debate.  It has introduced a greater element of interactivity to its output.  This is clearly visible with the multimedia BBC Persian Service. The example: its flagship program Nowbat-e Shoma (Your Turn) makes full use of radio, television, the Internet and mobile phones to enable Persian speakers within and outside Iran to debate topical issues.  Immediately after the 2009 election in Iran, the Persian Service received user-generated content at a rate of six to eight items a minute.

The contribution that WS makes, and the relevance to PD, are well demonstrated in the reaction on the BBC’s Russian language website,, to the Georgia Crisis in August 2008.  As the war unfolded, the debate forum on the site was deluged with comments.  Those from Russia were overwhelmingly in support of the Russian government’s actions, and many people were angry about the BBC’s coverage of events; yet they still came to the website and joined the debate.  Personal stories from refugees on both sides brought home the full tragedy of the war.

The site’s moderators sought to provide an outlet for strongly-held opinions on both sides, but not to let arguments degenerate into abuse.  And they were able to draw on the breadth of WS coverage by taking comments from debates on the websites of 31 other language services, translating them and feeding them into the Russian site.

It is not hard to see the parallels between the developments in WS and the changing approach to PD.  The BBC aims to provide a forum for open debate. If the government sees debate as an important part of PD then it can benefit from the activities of WS much more directly than before, while the independence of WS remains as strong as ever.

Colin Wilding is Senior Analyst, Performance & Assessment Data in BBC Global News (which includes World Service); he specializes in the collection and evaluation of performance data for internal and external stakeholders and represents the BBC on bodies such as the Conference of International Broadcasters’ Audience Research Services (CIBAR).  He has worked in international audience research for over 30 years.

[1] Lord Carter of Coles. Public Diplomacy Review (December 2005).

[2] Public Diplomacy: Seven Lessons For Its Future From Its Past. Engagement: Public Diplomacy in a Globalised World (2008).