New strategic plan "aims to make BBG the world’s leading international news agency by 2016." With comments.

Posted: 19 Oct 2011   Print   Send a link
Broadcasting Board of Governors press release, 14 Oct 2011: "The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), at its meeting on October 13, adopted a new five-year strategic plan designed to grow and reform U.S. international broadcasting. ... BBG’s 2012-2016 strategic plan aims to make BBG the world’s leading international news agency by 2016 ... ." See previous post with more of the press release and comments.

The press release does not specify by what measure USIB will become the world's leading news agency by 2016. Whatever it is, the competition is formidable: it includes Reuters, AP, BBC, CNN, New York Times, The Guardian, Al Jazeera, and News Corp, among others.

Some of these news agencies are US-based. Is the BBG planning to compete domestically as a news provider? This would explain why the elimination of the domestic dissemination prohibition of the Smith-Mundt Act is part of the strategic plan. And this would follow on to Lee Bollinger's proposal that the United States have a government funded "American World Service," serving both US and international audiences, based on the premise that private sector cannot keep up with the financial demand of global reporting.

For the moment, let's explore if USIB can, at least, overtake the BBC, which is undergoing a major budget cut and loss of language services. In my New York Times op-ed on 13 July 2010, I noted that US international broadcasting, with a weekly audience of 171 million, was close to catching up with the BBC World Service weekly audience number, which is 180 million if we do not count the BBC's commercial international broadcasting efforts such as BBC World News (USIB does not do commercial international broadcasting) and if we do not count the BBC's audience in the United States (USIB does not target the United States, at least not yet).

Compare, however, the budgets to achieve these audiences: $757 million per year for US international broadcasting versus $420 million for BBC World Service. USIB does not need more money. It needs to be more efficient. The language in the new BBG strategic plan addressing consolidation and the elimination is duplication is promising. But there is more involved...

The BBC is renowned for its credibility. This credibility attracts audiences directly and it opens the doors to affiliation deals. The BBC achieves its credibility by fiercely guarding its independence, even at the cost of public disagreements, every few years, with the UK government. In the BBC's list of six values, the first is: "Trust is the foundation of the BBC: we are independent, impartial and honest." Its journalists ask tough questions, and will aggressively follow up, even if UK officials are the interviewees. BBC World Service delves into a diverse array of controversial, sometimes even discomfiting, subjects. Its news output covers UK foreign policy fully, but is not obsessed by it. It is an important source of news about its target countries, but it provides more than just the bad news about the target country and its leaders. Can USIB match these factors?

Another advantage of BBC World Service is its corporate connection with the domestic BBC. Although BBC World Service must pay the domestic BBC for administrative services, the journalism output of the domestic BBC is available to World Service, and vice versa. This synergy will be solidified when BBC World Service journalists move into the BBC domestic newsroom next year.

USIB, if it aspires to be the leading news agency, must form an alliance within US domestic media. US private news organizations, to protect their credibility, would initially be loath to take money from the government. Any such deal between USIB and US private media must therefore be carefully crafted.

One way to accomplish this would be through a fixed-term franchise. One or more private US media companies would be responsible for the output of US international broadcasting for five years, during which there would be no interference, no kibitzing, by any branch of the US government. Any unhappiness by the USG would be manifest by non-renewal of the contract at the end of the term.

In my Foreign Service Journal paper (October 2010) (pdf), I proposed a consortium of the US broadcast news organizations: ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox, and NBC. Each would send an executive to form a board that would hire or dismiss the senior management of USIB. The board would also provide guidance and serve as the "firewall," fending off any attempts to interfere with the journalistic independence of USIB and evaluating any complaints from government circles.

A similar arrangement could be made with the Associated Press. The AP is a cooperative owned by contributing newspapers, radio and television stations, with ownership spanning the partisan spectrum. As such, it would, in the words of the VOA Charter, "represent America, not any single segment of American society." USIB could help AP become more multilingual, and to offer its output at subsidized rates to media outlets in poorer countries. The AP could help USIB in many obvious ways.