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Axing BBC Arabic will weaken UK’s soft power in the Gulf

Corporation's decision to axe radio output will affect millions who rely on it as a trusted source of world news

Since the BBC froze its licence fee the corporation has looked for other ways to cut costs Unsplash
Since the BBC froze its licence fee the corporation has looked for other ways to cut costs, with BBC Arabic and Persian the latest victim

Britain has benefited from a golden era of soft power tools. It may have declined from its peak, not least after the second world war and the withdrawing from the east of Suez, but it still retained an influence that perhaps meant it often punched above its weight. 

Imagine what most people around the globe know about Britain. Certainly, the Queen and the Royal Family, as evidenced by the extraordinary outpouring on the passing of the monarch last month.

But just as significant and well known, a giant soft power tool has been the British Broadcasting Corporation, also known as the BBC. 

Survey after survey has shown that the BBC is largely perceived as a trusted news source, one to depend on. 

The international arm, the BBC World Service, broadcasts in a remarkable 41 languages. It reaches 384 million people a week.

The BBC is funded through a licence fee, not the state, and is independent from the UK government, a status it claims it fiercely protects. However, the government froze the licence fee earlier this year, forcing BBC management to look at cuts.

This week the BBC announced that in order to make £28.5m ($32.35m) of annual savings it would stop producing radio output in 10 languages – including its Arabic and Persian radio services.

BBC Arabic is the oldest of the corporation’s foreign language outputs. It started 84 years ago when it launched in January 1938. The first announcer was a popular Egyptian presenter, Ahmad Effendi. It ran for just 65 minutes a day but this soon increased. 

Digital Arabic content will be given priority, which has some merit. More people are turning to digital to access all forms of content.

Many argue that radio is going the way of the telegraph and the fax. Is it relevant anymore in 2022? That is a legitimate debate. As a result of this move, more than half of the BBC foreign languages in radio will be digital-only. 

But critics point out that this favours those with internet access. What about the millions who depend on radio for news? Internet access has spread but is far from universal and that is unlikely to change soon. 

Why has this happened now? In part, it is the result of the continuing and bitter struggle between the Conservative government and the BBC.

Many on the right in Britain want to ditch the BBC or downscale it to a shell of its former self. They prefer to see a free market in news channels. 

Such channels lobby ministers hard to cut the BBC’s dominant position in the market. The populist elements of the Conservative party delight in bashing the BBC at every opportunity.

The new prime minister, Liz Truss, did this in the leadership election campaign when she laughingly mocked the BBC for its supposed “mistakes” and praised GB News, a right-wing, private, rival news channel.  

The BBC’s independence matters in a world of rival broadcasters who are state-sponsored, including by regimes with appalling human rights records. Russia Today, for example, has expanded massively but hardly has the same reputation for independence.

With Russia and Chinese outlets pumping propaganda into the region, is it any wonder that some Arabic outlets do not refer to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

But if the BBC continues to shrink, will more people have to turn to such outfits? What about those living under repressive regimes who depend on such broadcasts?

Frequently, Arabic speakers from countries likes Iraq and Syria have told me how it was the BBC who alerted them to major events in their own countries that the local state media deliberately ignored.

BBC Arabic and Persian content will not disappear completely. Yet it will concern many that this is the direction of travel.

Some might also argue that the British authorities should be investing in the BBC World Service, not shrinking it. What will it do to British soft power at a time when international development aid has also been slashed? 

Chris Doyle is director of the Council of Arab British Understanding

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