Erasing the UK’s Soft Power – The Closure of BBC Arabic Radio

According to the BBC, the World Service currently reaches 148m people in an average week

Much of said of soft power, this notion of being able to influence and persuade others through concepts such as culture and entertainment. There is no better example of this than the British Broadcasting Corporation, better known as the BBC. For decades, the BBC has been the go-to place for information throughout much of the world. This was due to the BBC’s range of platforms, most especially its radio service.

This week, the BBC announced the closure of ten different language services on its radio network and the firing of 382 people. These languages include Arabic, Persian, Chinese, Hindi, Tamil and Bengali. While the BBC argues that many people will be able to listen online (and online numbers have been growing according to data released by the Corporation), BBC’s overall global reach in 2020 was 468 million people a week.

One has to wonder what this decision will mean, not just for the BBC (the service will still be running its Arabic-language television service and website), but for the United Kingdom in general. Many people in the world know the UK through the BBC, and primarily the radio service. Radio is easier and cheaper to obtain (especially on short wave), and it can be harder to block than a website.

The last time the BBC had to scrap an Arabic-language initiative was when it cancelled the planned-for news service at short notice. Qatar came in, snapped up the team and formed AlJazeera, which is arguably the most impactful television and online news service the region has.

Given that the UK government seems to be short-sighted enough to lose one of its most powerful soft power assets abroad (the total cost of radio for those ten languages is just under 30 million pounds a year), you do wonder who will come along and do another AlJazeera by setting up their own radio service with some of the most experience journalists and engineers in the radio industry.

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