There are very few ways in which Great Britain can still claim to be a global power. It does not set the terms of world trade as China does. It has ceded the waves to the U.S. Navy, which boasts ten times as many aircraft carriers. It does not have regulatory or standard-setting power, unlike the European Union it so huffily left. Sure, the United Kingdom has nuclear weapons. But then, so does North Korea.
What North Korea does not have, to its great loss, is the British Broadcasting Corporation. To this day, the BBC spans the world as effortlessly as the Royal Navy once did; indeed, it may be the only imperial legacy that has a purpose in the 21st century. That’s why it’s deeply worrying that Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative government, filled with boosters of “Global Britain” and defenders of the country’s imperial past, seems intent on rendering this last great British asset valueless.
Britain’s Foreign Office should certainly have a
say before the UK’s most powerful global
weapon is forced to turn itself into Netflix
Fears were sparked by a tweet last weekend from Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries, linking to a Mail on Sunday story about her intention to freeze the license fee charged to U.K. television owners to fund the BBC at £159 for two years; Dorries declared that this announcement of a new fee would be “the last.” The goal, according to the Mail, is to hold fee increases under inflation until the BBC’s Royal Charter expires in 2027, thus starving it of billions in funds. The ultimate goal would be to institute “a new funding model that reflects the growing domination of subscription services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime.”
It is objectively amusing to see flag-waving Little Englanders such as Dorries and the Mail benchmark a great British institution to, well, Netflix. Still, shrinking the BBC’s funding and forcing it to cater to the whims of subscribers is both dangerous and short-sighted.
For some Tories, the BBC is a pointless and unjust — a liberal bastion chasing young viewers but funded by their grandparents. Oddly, many on the left hate the public broadcaster quite as much, insisting it was partially responsible for turning leftist former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn into electoral kryptonite. And, presumably, centrists are too busy watching Netflix to care.
In fact, they should care deeply — and so should the rest of the world. Let’s leave aside the fact that the BBC remains the most successful model for public broadcasting globally. Its news services constantly seek out impartiality and independence. While recognizing they will forever fall short, their efforts to improve are the reason that British television news remains rational and informative, especially compared to its peers in other democracies. The broadcaster also happens to produce pretty great and diverse content — nature documentaries, hit thrillers, baking shows and even several series about an elderly Tory taking the train.
What matters even more is that in many parts of the world, when people want information they can trust, they turn to news programs that begin, “This is London.” For decades, across the developing world, everyone’s first instinct in times of crisis has been to tune in to see what the BBC World Service is saying.
That instinct has not died even in our post-truth age. Amid all the misinformation and disinformation, amid duelling nationalist narratives and conspiratorial nihilism, the BBC calmly produces old-fashioned journalism in a dozen different mediums and 40 distinct languages. And its ambition has only grown: In 2017, it began broadcasting in four additional Indian languages — Marathi, Gujarati, Telugu and Punjabi.
I doubt Dorries and the Mail could be brought to care about the quality of discourse in the rest of the world, given they apparently don’t care about worsening it back home. But Dorries at least is part of a government committed to restoring a bit of shine to Britain’s faded brand. She should recognize that, even as Britain’s economic and political footprint has receded, the BBC is listened to and watched by hundreds of millions, even billions, across the world.
Soft power is still power — and it is hard to see why Whitehall would want to dismantle this last great instrument of British influence. Perhaps it hasn’t: When Dorries officially announced her plans in the House of Commons on Monday, she mentioned only the fee freeze and not the idea of scrapping it altogether. According to the Financial Times, that may be because of a rearguard action fought in Cabinet by Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak and Foreign Secretary Liz Truss.
Any such intervention would be welcome. Britain’s Foreign Office should certainly have a say before the UK’s most powerful global weapon is forced to turn itself into Netflix.
Mihir Swarup Sharma is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi and head of its Economy and Growth Programme.