City University London
Foreign affairs usually count for little at general elections. Voters’ more pressing concerns come to the fore: health, education, their own personal economic circumstances. There are exceptions. While exact effects are hard to prove, the Liberal Democrats’ claim that they benefited in the 2005 UK election from opposition to the Iraq war seems persuasive.
In an age when British politicians have seen media management as an indispensable element of electoral success, and the Prime Minister himself even has a past working in public relations, it is no surprise that foreign policy tends to fade into the background – unless there’s a chance to look tough talking to troops overseas, or tender meeting a luckless refugee.
As David Cameron goes forward into his second term in Prime Minister, he does so without an impressive international record. Two recent examples stand out above all others. Firstly, his lack of leadership on, or even direct involvement in, European Union policy on Ukraine. This was left to Angela Merkel, and Francois Hollande. Secondly, his reluctance to address the Syrian refugee crisis until an electorate apparently preoccupied in normal times by worries over immigration shelved those concerns, and nudged him into action.
No wonder Alice Thomson, reviewing Anthony Seldon and Peter Snowdon’s book Cameron at 10: the Inside Story in The Times on September 19th, concluded, ‘Foreign affairs comes across as the prime minister’s weakest point.’ The Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond, has no obvious heavyweight international experience – unless you include, ‘hands-on business experience in small and medium-sized companies in manufacturing, property and construction, and oil and gas, both in the UK and elsewhere in Europe’.1
All of this seems to have an effect on the government’s attitude to the BBC. Why else did the Coalition decide to end Foreign Office funding for the BBC World Service? One effect of this will inevitably be to put pressure on budgets for international coverage. Moreover, despite the fact that it is no longer paying the bills, the Foreign Office retains a say over which language services are cut, or launched.
I declare an interest. I worked for the BBC for 15 years, almost all of them in international news. I was a correspondent in Moscow, Brussels, and Gaza; an editor at the Russian Language Service; Europe Regional Editor in the World Service Newsroom. Every one of these posts showed me, and taught me to value, the extensive knowledge and expertise which the BBC had at its disposal. In the World Service, you could always find without much difficulty a fluent or native speaker of a language in the news, or an authority on a country or region and its politics and economics.
This expertise is especially valuable when other news organizations are cutting back on international coverage. Twice last year I travelled to Jerusalem and the West Bank to gather research material for my book, ‘Headlines from the Holy Land’. The many correspondents and others I spoke to felt that – with the exception of the war in Gaza in July and August – the conflict there was not being reported nearly as extensively as once it had been. Bloodshed in the wider region was one reason; dwindling budgets another.
To the current government’s lack of leadership in international affairs is added the suspicion that the free marketeers in its ranks oppose the BBC on principle. When he was appointed Culture Secretary, much was made of John Whittingdale’s past as an adviser to Margaret Thatcher. Ministers’ closeness to the BBC’s implacable rivals in the Conservative-supporting press is another factor. Shortly before he took up the post which Mr Whittingdale now occupies, Jeremy Hunt was reported to have urged the Prime Minister ‘in strong terms to back Rupert Murdoch’s takeover bid for BskyB’.2
None of this looks good for the BBC at a time when its international coverage is as important as ever. There are two reasons in particular why this is the case.
Firstly, the depth and breadth of the BBC’s coverage enables an understanding of international issues for an audience – an electorate – that needs to know. For the idea that foreign affairs are not important to ordinary people carries much less weight in a time when immigration is regularly cited as being at the top of voters’ concerns3. Jeremy Bowen’s recent reporting from Syria on the terror which drives refugees to flee was just one example which provided invaluable context.
Secondly, I would argue that we are in an era when governments place greater importance on the use of media in conflict than ever before. Georgia’s attempts to influence international public opinion in its war with Russia in 2008; the Israeli government and army’s use of the media during its military operation in Gaza last year; Russia’s massive investment in international broadcasting, especially during the conflict in Ukraine, are all examples of this. The British government’s decision to put further pressure on BBC budgets – not just by the World Service funding decision, but also by the subsequent decision to force the corporation to carry the cost of TV licences for the over 75s – makes it harder to compete with the outpouring of propaganda.
Countering that is in the interests of everyone except the authors of the propaganda. It is in the interests of journalism in general, and of the BBC in particular. It is also in the interests of a government bitterly opposed to Russia’s current role in Ukraine. The need to keep up political appearances makes it inconceivable that the recent financial burdens placed on the BBC will be lifted. This is wrong. The electorate today does have a great interest in international affairs – certainly in the sense that they have a stake in them. The government should not let its lack of leadership on foreign policy, and its ideological commitment to the free market, lead it to ignore this.
1 https://www.conservatives.com/OurTeam/Members_of_Parliament/hammond_philip, Accessed 22 September 2015
2 The Guardian website, 24 May 2012. Available at http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2012/may/24/hunt-cameron-bskyb-bid-decision , accessed 25 September 2015.
3 See, for example, https://www.ipsos-mori.com/researchpublications/researcharchive/3614/EconomistIpsos-MORI-August-2015-Issues-Index.aspx , accessed 25 September 2015.