Suddenly the UK Conservative government of David Cameron has discovered that the BBC, and especially the BBC WorldService, is an asset in these days of fighting Islamic State and other terrorists and resisting the adventures of President Vladimir Putin and other threats (North Korea). Instead of slashing BBC budgets (or rather, forcing the BBC to impose its own cuts in a form of political gutlessness) the Cameron government is handing out 85 million pounds (over A$180 million) to the BBC World Service to “uphold global democracy”. (OK, stop choking and spluttering).

Back in 2010, the then-coalition government led by Cameron (allied with the now almost defunct Liberal Democrats) forced the BBC to take over funding of the World Service from the Foreign office. Cameron and his Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, were on a slash-and-burn campaign aimed at punishing the BBC, and bringing the UK budget back into surplus by 2014-15 (which it missed, so it had another go overnight). The BBC licence fee was frozen for six years, and the BBC was forced take on the funding of the World Service to the tune of 340 million pounds (over A$700 million at the time). No mention then of “upholding global democracy”.

Today’s new money will be used to increase BBC World content in North Korea, the Middle East and Africa (all trouble spots back in 2010). There will be expanded services for Africa, new radio services for audiences in North Korea and radio and digital services for Ethiopia and Eritrea. The BBC will also expand TV, radio and digital offerings in Somalia, India, Nigeria and Thailand. There will also be help boosting digital and TV services for Russian speakers, both in Russia and surrounding communities. “Soft power” needs hard cash, as it did back in 2010.

So will the Turnbull government in Australia discover once again that Radio Australia exists? Or will they outsource soft-power to the likes of Lachlan Murdoch’s Nova radio business, to play smooth music into the south Pacific and south-east Asia?

Peter Fray

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