If we understand public diplomacy as an activity by state actors (and, in some cases, by non-governmental organizations alike) to foster understanding of a country‘s “ideas and ideals, its institutions and culture, as well as its national goals and current policies” (Tuch, 1990: 3), then international broadcasting appears as a tool well-suited to fulfill this task. Audiences the world over can tune in to radio and television programs produced in London, Beijing, Paris, Doha, Washington, and many more places – in their vernacular tongue or a global language of their choice. Thus the world could be a place rejoicing in informed debate, rational deliberation, and tolerant acceptance of other countries’ viewpoints and policies – and yet, as we all know, it is not.

International Broadcasting, Public Diplomacy, and Empire

International broadcasting has its origins in colonialism and empire maintenance (or, if you prefer that other term, imperialism). In 1927/28, the Dutch Philips Corporation initiated broadcasts for expats in the Dutch East Indies – the first of their kind. Twenty years later, the newly founded Radio Nederland Wereldomroep (today: Radio Netherlands Worldwide) took up this discontinued tradition, this time including programs in foreign languages. Among the first broadcasting organizations to target audiences abroad in their home languages was the Soviet Union’s Radio Moskva (Radio Moscow), founded in 1929 as a straight propaganda service dedicated to glorifying the achievements of Communism. Germany started her Weltrundfunksender (Worldwide Broadcasting Station) in the same year.  Shortly after the Nazis’ takeover of power in 1933, the station was renamed Deutscher Kurzwellensender (German Short-Wave Service) and became a propaganda instrument of that dictatorship. France’s short-wave service Poste Colonial (Colonial Relay System) started in 1931 (its present-day successor organization is Radio France Internationale). The United Kingdom’s British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) initiated its Empire Service in 1932; the service’s first foreign-language broadcasts were produced in Arabic in 1938 in order to counter anti-British uprisings in Arabic regions of the British Empire (partly fuelled by German-backed propaganda programs). Towards the end of Empire, the service was renamed BBC World Service in 1965. Japan’s Nippon Hōsō Kyōkai (NHK) was founded in 1926 and started its international services in 1935 amidst rising sentiments of aggressive hyper-nationalism and expansionism. The United States of America lagged behind in this airwave-bound game of international self-representation, propaganda and counter-propaganda, or generally speaking psychological warfare, forming her Voice of America only in 1942, in the middle of World War II.

With the onset of the Cold War, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty contributed to the ideological struggle with the Soviet empire, and the concept of “public diplomacy” developing in parallel in the United States as a tool of self-representation in a context of heightened antagonism (Cull, 2009). New adversaries in later decades encouraged the United States to form broadcasting services such as Radio/TV Martí, Radio Free Asia, Radio Sawa, Alhurra Television, inspiring other broadcasters to install similar services: e.g., the BCC’s Arabic Television in 2008, a late second attempt to set up a British voice in the Middle East (after a failed first BBC attempt from 1994-96 led to the creation of Qatar-based Al-Jazeera satellite channel, a huge rival to any Western broadcasting endeavor in the Arabic-speaking world ever since its rise to fame in 2001); France’s Arabic-language arm within its France 24 televisions operation; Germany’s Deutsche Welle TV Arabia; or Russia Today’s Al-Rusiya Al-Youm.

Soft Power, Strategic Communications and the Notion of Dialogue

These sketchy (and profoundly abridged) outlines of the history of international broadcasting (following Briggs, 1985; Browne, 1982; Brunnquell, 1991; Zöllner, 2009) point to traces and traditions that linger on. Only very few audience members would not be aware of the goal of international broadcasts, regarded here as tools of public diplomacy to inform and engage people’s hearts and minds, and therefore being about ‘soft power,’ or “the ability to shape the preferences of others” (Nye, 2008: 95). International broadcasting can be journalistic in nature, and in the best of all cases it is (the BBC World Service setting the standards for many others).  In other cases it is very obviously not blessed by a journalistic, fact-gathering approach but rather plagued by an urge to convince and leave no room for second thoughts. But whatever the journalistic or propagandistic credentials of a broadcaster-as-public-diplomat, it is never truly impartial as topics covered by such an organization almost inevitably reflect its host nation’s policy concerns and strategic interests – what might be called a structural partiality, or simply an example of “strategic communications” (Taylor, 2009: 14). This more or less top-down approach of broadcasting is reflected in the medium’s monologic nature, which is in turn determined by its one-way technical apparatus. True dialogues of a symmetrical nature, where the roles of communicator and recipient are interchangeable and where messages are not necessarily bound to ‘success’ in the Habermasian way, are very hard to achieve via radio or television (Zöllner 2006). Against this background, international broadcasting as an instrument of public diplomacy is an expression of power not quite as ‘soft’ as Nye’s term would suggest: it is about persuasion and attaining certain pre-determined goals; it “is no altruistic affair” (Melissen, 2005:14).

The Ascent of New Empires and New Technologies

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, marked a symbolic turning point in world politics: the struggle between ‘the West’ and an ‘Islamism’ is, at its core, detached from a territorial reference that for the past 200 years has been called a nation-state; rather, it is about traditional territorially-bound hegemonic powers fighting new ideologies that are vague, decentric, and loosely organized, and yet easily spreading around the globe with the help of new media. This war of images and ideas (Kimmage & Ridolfo, 2007) leaves traditional public diplomacy and trans-border broadcasting organized by nation-states hapless, dazed and confused, or so it seems. The arrival of the new threat of adverse ideologies that are hard to pin down to some clearly defined territorial ‘enemies’, and their increasingly sophisticated use of Internet-based channels of communication, coincides with the slow decline of the old Western power bloc and the at times awe-inspiring ascent of new centers of power (e.g., China, India).

Times like these would call for a renewed awareness of the importance of some form of ‘public diplomacy’ as a forum of intercultural exchange on equal footing. However, it seems that what prevails with audiences around the world is an old, perhaps clichéd, perception of international broadcasting as government diplomacy pursuing national interests and hegemonic agendas: as an instrument of nation-branding or as a ‘voice of imperialism’. There seems to be a lack of credibility that is associated with public diplomacy and international broadcasting – a deficiency that only very few broadcasters have managed to stay more or less clear of (with the BBC World Service obviously playing in its own league as a journalistic role model, and Al-Jazeera being perceived as a trans-national, pan-Arab broadcaster rather than a Qatar-based station largely financed by an autocratic monarch).

Recent protest movements and popular uprisings in Iran, Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere have highlighted the increased importance of deterritorialized, decentric, non-national systems of communication and mass-organization, that is, social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter. With a bit of fancy, these Web 2.0 applications with their dialogic functions might be called the new ‘nations’ of the post-national era. This in turn calls for a new public diplomacy – and hence, a new conceptualization of what sort of instrument international broadcasting could be beyond a mere copycat-like insertion of Facebook and Twitter applications on broadcasters’ Web sites  ̶  which just makes them dependent of those new, post-national power structures embodied by global corporations of the Internet economy.

A New Public Sphere?

As Manuel Castells fittingly remarked, the “implicit project behind the idea of public diplomacy” should be to “harness the dialogue between different social collectives and their cultures in the hope of sharing meaning and understanding” and to build a new kind of public sphere, or global civil society, “in which diverse voices can be heard in spite of their various origins, distinct values, and often contradictory interests” (Castells, 2008: 91). For the time being, it is doubtful whether the worldwide community of public diplomats and international broadcasters on the one side, and local activist movements and other exponents of civil society on the other, share enough common ground to bring this promise to life. The global civil society that would be so much in need of a truly ‘public’ diplomacy/broadcasting service is as yet not part of the dialogic equation while the traditions of empire and propaganda linger on.

Oliver Zöllner is a professor of media economics at Stuttgart Media University, Stuttgart, and an honorary professor of international communication at the University of Düsseldorf, Germany. From 1997 to 2004, Zöllner was Director of the market and media research department of Germany’s international broadcaster, Deutsche Welle. This was accompanied by various teaching assignments at a string of universities from 1996 to 2006. Zöllner is the author and editor of several books on international communication and broadcasting research, some of them in English.


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