Britain’s international broadcaster is expanding in the subcontinent, but not in the old ways, reports William Crawley

 The BBC has entered a new period of expansion as an international broadcaster. After years of cuts, BBC Worldwide – the broadcaster’s commercial arm – announced a year ago that government funding was to be revived, to the tune of £289 million, for a range of new foreign language services.

Much of the expansion is in parts of the world where there is instability and real or potential conflict, such as North Korea, Russia, the Middle East and Africa. In India, however, despite ongoing tension with Pakistan, the new services – in Gujarati, Marathi, Punjabi and Telugu – do not fall into that category. What is distinctive about them is that they are strong new media markets; tapping into them should help the BBC reach an ambitious target of increasing its global audience to 500 million users, from something like 300 million today.

Radio had been, from the start of Indian language services in the 1940s, the sole platform for the BBC as an international broadcaster. But radio has now declined in the world media landscape. One example shows how far. In 2005 the BBC Thai radio service was ended. Nine years later, in 2014, it was revived ­­– not as a radio service, but as an online service on social media. This was considered less controversial (though it has not avoided controversy) as well as less expensive.

The BBC’s editorial independence has been protected by its charter

The four new Indian language services have now started to come on stream, though not all immediately. They have followed a similar pattern, bypassing radio altogether in favour of the numerous outlets of the new digital media, and partnerships negotiated where possible with local commercial TV stations. The principal vehicle for this expansion is the smartphone. India already has 20 per cent or more of the world’s smartphones, and with China, the US and Europe reaching saturation point, is seen as the fastest-growing smartphone market in the world.

Once, FM radio broadcasting partnerships were seen as the most appropriate and effective means for reaching local and community audiences around the world. But in India, unlike in Africa, FM was effectively denied to the BBC and other international broadcasters by the refusal of Indian regulators to allow news programmes on FM. Now, however, FM is seen as yesterday’s technology.

The move to direct British government funding of additional BBC services represents a partial resumption of a system of funding for the World Service that had operated for over 60 years, until 2010. In that year the Conservative-led coalition government announced that World Service funding – like all domestic broadcasting – would be paid for by the annual licence fee charged to owners of TV sets in the United Kingdom.

The BBC World Service is set to launch a range of new foreign language services
The BBC World Service is set to launch a range of new foreign language services

The BBC’s editorial independence has been protected by its charter, though this has not prevented governments from reshaping and eventually abolishing its governing body, or bringing it, like other broadcasters, under the supervision of the official broadcasting regulator, Ofcom. The BBC model of autonomy, once widely cited by other public broadcasters including in India, has been radically changed in the past 15 years, and in Britain it has regularly faced political criticism and attack.

But the Indian element in the latest expansion of BBC services represents a different trend in the broadcaster’s international perspective. The four new services are all in major languages, with a flourishing market in a diverse, multilingual media landscape, across television, radio and the new digital media. They are not at the centre of current international disputes or conflicts – circumstances such as those which prompted the expansion of the Bengali service, when Bangladesh emerged in 1971; the Pashto service, started in 1981 in response to the Soviet presence in Afghanistan; or the Burmese service, after the shortlived ‘Rangoon Spring’ of 1988, and subsequently with the partial opening up of the country under a changing military regime.

The BBC’s audience target is approved by the Foreign Office as providing a boost to the kind of soft power that the BBC represents for Britain, but not a pressing security or international diplomatic aim. The proposed Punjabi service, in Gurmukhi script, suggests a predominantly Indian Punjabi Sikh audience. Punjabi is a major regional language in Pakistan too, but there the script is Urdu/Arabic, suggesting that the new service – with the exception of its video components – will be all but inaccessible to media consumers on the Pakistani side of the border. If the service is successful in India, this is something that BBC planners may be expected to look at in future.

When broadcasting in South Asia was a state monopoly, as national radio services in India still are, it was an axiom of the BBC South Asian services that the BBC broadcast in languages to their audiences without borders, rather than to specific countries. This principle has been modified in the case of the Bengali service, which is now targeted mainly at users in Bangladesh rather than Indian West Bengal. However, the new Gujarati service, due to start next year, and the Marathi service, which is still under preparation, will find their main users within India’s borders.

The same applies to the new Telugu service, which in addition to its online component, is carried for 30 minutes daily, five days a week, on the local Eenadu TV. But Andhra Pradesh, where Telugu is the official state language, has a particular importance for Britain. India’s growing economic power has meant that aid is seen to a considerable extent as redundant, but in Andhra the great inequalities of India’s economic growth are evident, and it continues to be the focus of British aid to India. A poverty-focused aid programme in the state is still seen, perhaps reluctantly on the Indian side, as of value.

A final consideration for the choice of languages is the likelihood of a significant diaspora audience in the UK and globally, especially for Gujarati and Punjabi. The services will be backed by new regional news-gathering offices in Ahmedabad, Chandigarh, Mumbai and Hyderabad, compensating to some extent for the closure of previously important regional BBC offices for the majority Hindi-speaking areas of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. The new digital services will all be posted from Delhi, which now hosts the largest BBC office outside the UK.

Rupa Jha, the Delhi-based Editor of BBC Indian language services, sees the BBC as providing not merely the transcript to fan existing newspaper or broadcast, but a new style of journalism, making full use of the variety of formats and technologies across different digital platforms. It is a project to challenge and inspire a new generation of BBC broadcasters and their audiences, and increasingly the public who interact with them.

William Crawley is a former head of the BBC Eastern Service with responsibility for South Asian language services


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