The recently announced cut of funding to the BBC World Service is a serious dislocation of joined-up government.
With the defence vote being axed yet again, one would have imagined that the government would be encouraging anything that might make it less likely that our forces would have to be deployed – for it is the cost of military operations rather than military capabilities that is so expensive – in blood as well as treasure.
One of the buzz words in defence circles is “soft power” – the use of influence, economic aid and persuasion, education – in fact anything that can influence people and nations not to resort to fighting. All our current wars are against minority resistance groups rather than governments, and using another rather better-known military adjective are “asymmetrical” – meaning we are the large, unwieldy establishment spending huge amounts of money – the ‘Goliaths’; with our enemy the ‘Davids’.
The huge cost of military intervention is obvious to everyone in desperately poor countries like Afghanistan, the Yemen, Somalia, and other trouble spots; unlike the benefits of these operations to local people, whose lives may actually be worse than before.
Into this uncertainty and anguish, hitherto, the BBC World Service has been broadcasting highly respected unbiased news, current affairs and discussion material into some of the world’s most fractured and damaged societies – often the only unbiased, rational comment the people get to hear. This has long been known to enhance the UK’s reputation for fairness, and underpinned UK plc’s considerable indirect influence in these parts of the world.
In military terms, the BBC World Service has been a major pillar of the UK’s projection of “soft power”, hence it having been funded by the government. There are a great many other subtle ways in which the UK exercises its soft power – through for example defence attaches in our embassies abroad, and the training of foreign officer cadets at Sandhurst (who go onto become generals and defence ministers, retaining close friendships with their British officer contemporaries).
It was through using such influence that the UK helped the US State department put together the remarkable international coalition that drove Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait – as I describe in my new book “Gulf War One” (Ebury, pub 11th Nov 2010).
So I can only conclude that by stopping funding the BBC World Service, the government is knowingly withdrawing from influencing the many parts of the world into which these broadcasts so effectively penetrated. (It’s hard to imagine that the government could be ignorant of the value of the broadcasts…)
But of course the true need is for wealthy nations to share resources with the rest… It would have been so much cheaper to have tackled the inequality that underpins much of today’s asymmetric warfare – that to expect our under-funded soldiers somehow to do achieve their usual miracles….