In a 2010 BBC survey, respondents in Egypt, Pakistan, Kenya and Turkey were asked how much they would miss the services of the BBC, CNN International, Voice of America or Al Jazeera. The Egyptian respondents said they would miss the BBC more than Al Jazeera.
So of course you would think the British Government would place a high priority on continuing to speak to the world through its revered international broadcaster, the BBC World Service. The same survey found that, of all British institutions (including the government, the armed services, and British foreign aid), it was the BBC (by far) which made respondents think more positively about Britain.
Yet Britain's financial woes have permeated all levels of the public service, and the BBC World Service has not been immune. The full extent of the injury was evident when the BBC World Service announced funding cuts on Friday.
Completely reversing the support given by government over the last few years (with significant investment in Arabic language TV services, for example), the service has been forced to cut more than $70 million a year over the next three years. The service estimates it will lose 30 million listeners (around 17%) and around 650 jobs over the next three years, with 480 going next year alone.
The BBC was at pains to point out that these were not internal decisions, but imposed on it by the Government's decision to cut its grant-in-aid funding so dramatically. It will be feeling the pain particularly intensely this week, with revolution afoot in Egypt.
The BBC apparently plans to cease evening radio broadcasts in Arabic, as well as completely abandoning broadcasts in Mandarin, Russian, Turkish, Vietnamese, Ukrainian and Azeri. Short wave distribution in Hindi, Indonesian, Krygyz, Nepali and other African languages will stop in March.
The BBC says it will focus on online and new media distribution. Yet online audiences remain a fraction (4% in 2010) of its total audience of 180 million, and for developing nations in Asia and Africa in particular, short wave radio is often the only available source of news.
All this could be an opportunity for Australia, of course, had the Government the will, focus or funding to do anything about it. As we argued in a recent paper on international broadcasting, Radio Australia and the Australia Network are a cost-effective means of reaching and attracting foreign publics to Australia's ideals and policies.
But Government support for these tools has been erratic and it spends far less on them (for Australia's size) than other major broadcasting nations. With the result that, for example, Radio Australia broadcasts in Bahasa only 3.5 hours per day, yet Indonesia is Australia's largest near neighbour and the greatest recipient of Australia's aid.
The BBC's loss could be Australia's gain. Imagine, we could pick up the BBC's discarded frequencies in China, Indonesia and other parts of Asia, and use them to extend Radio Australia's broadcasts there. And perhaps boost Australia Network's presence as well, if the Government's new contract for the Australia Network service promised any more money.
The likelihood is, of course, that these pleasant fantasies will come to nought. China's international radio and CCTV services have probably made their move already.
Photo by Flickr user *Seth.