This is London. For decades the BBC World Service has been a reliable and respected voice in distant lands. Like other international outfits such as Americas Radio Liberty and Germanys Deutsche Welle,it does not provide propaganda. But it does give a reassuring and reasonable take on the world,valuable especially for those audiences whose local media are too cash-strapped,or too bullied,to give the full picture.
Now technology is cutting costs and stoking competition,eroding the Westerners advantages. Big transmitters were costly; podcasts and webcams,FM radio and cable television are cheap and often open to all. As the old signals fade,rival outfits are crowding the airwaves. Iran and Russia have both launched 24-hour English television-news channels. China added a second one last month. The newcomers may start off with unappealingly wooden presenters and nakedly biased reporting. But they can improve,as Al Jazeera (which is supported by the emir of Qatar) has done. China plans to outspend America hugely in coming years. Western budgets are flat or shrinking: Britains Foreign Office,which pays for some of the BBCs external services,faces a 25 per cent cut.
The right response to such challenges is not for Western countries to bin their broadcasts,but to target them better. Compared with other forms of foreign aid (or defence spending) they are cheap. The BBC World Service cost £281m ($442m) last year. The broadcasts not only rile dictators,but comfort their beleaguered opponents. In places like Myanmar,Somalia or Iran,too poor or too dictatorial to attract independent commercial media companies,providing solid news may be the best that the West can do. They also counter the propaganda from state media machines in places such as Russia and China. Without its own voice,the Wests case risks failing by default.
The dilemma is what to do in places where local media are stronger and more varied. The answer for the different international broadcasters will vary from country to country.
The case is strong for providing core global English-language programming,aimed at urban,well-educated audiences that make trade and investment decisions (or are thinking about where to send their children to university). Leaving that solely to commercial stations such as CNN would be a mistake. For outfits like the BBC,repackaging existing news-gathering for this international audience is a minor cost,with decent returns (especially if the programmes carry advertising,as they should). The old broadcasters need to learn new tricks too. For modern-minded viewers and listeners,the days of loyalty to a particular channel may be waning. But if the content is good and well-presented,it will flourish on the internet: for some,it will be better to invest in packaging material for YouTube,rather than renting satellite frequencies.
Television broadcasting in local languages,however,is costly and tricky. An American television service in Arabic has been a flop. Heavy-handed efforts in vernacular services also risk crowding out promising locals,by pinching good journalists. The international broadcasters should remember that one aim is to make themselves redundant.
Finding the right button
International broadcasters should therefore devote resources sparingly to countries where reliable news is already plentiful. They should concentrate on offering material that such markets fail to provide. In India,for example,it makes little sense to match local stations vernacular-language coverage of local news. Better to offer a view from outside,such as foreign and business news from faraway places that local broadcasters may lack the budget or the confidence to cover. And,to save money,they should buy more programming from outside,rather than trying to make it all in-house. As well as preaching pluralism,the old state-backed outfits should practise it too.
Even if the glory days are gone,voices like the World Service are still needed and worth paying for. Just make sure that they are directed towards the places that need them most.
© The Economist Newspaper Limited 2010