What is state-funded broadcasting overseas for?

Being a voice of reason when irrationality is the only game in town is not easy. On Tuesday, the Taliban killed Pakistani journalist Mukarram Khan Aatif, a correspondent in the Tribal Areas for Voice of America radio. 

The killing of reporters working for foreign, often Western, state-funded broadcasters tragically makes the point that they are often key frontline actors in conflict zones. Despite the fact that the influence they wield is enough to get them killed, it's not always understood by the people who fund their activities in the first place. 

Alex Belida, long-time US news professional, suggests over at the Mountainrunner blog that there are two lines of argument when it comes to justifying US public-funded broadcasting overseas.

Whereas Alex and other professionals believe that what they do should be about good journalism, he suggests that law makers in Congress (who approve funding for these organisations) feel their mission should be propaganda, in that it should feature "content which aggressively criticizes our perceived opponents around the globe while downplaying our own national faults."

While Alex has a bunch of proposals for re-organising and funding the multitude of radio and television station stations that make up the US international broadcasting world, he rightly stresses a core concern:

"I believe any discussion of the future structure of U.S. International Broadcasting must first address a more fundamental question: what is its purpose?"

Londonstani sympathises with Alex's position on this. As a journalist who has been lucky enough to work abroad for one of the world's best broadcasters, the BBC, Londonstani has seen seen first hand what sort of return a country gets on its investment in good public-service broadcasting overseas.

In many, many countries where Londonstani has worked, the BBC will be the one (or one of a very few) trusted sources of objective information. This generates the kind of positive vibe around the UK that you just can't buy.

(One example that comes to mind occurred when Londonstani rolled into the one-donkey central Chadian town that is Mongo. Suspicious and curious townspeople crowded round. When Londonstani explained that he was a journalist with the BBC, moods immediately lightened, "Ah yes, the BBC!... You must know Mohammed Abdullahi" (who Londonstani had never heard of but suspects is the local language correspondent). Cans of Pepsi were passed around and the Ak47s put away.)

There is also a utility beyond image building. In many countries in conflict or political crisis, local media will often be a party to the problem. And local people will be aware of that. Non-partisan media that doesn't need the patronage of a local powerbroker to survive can afford to challenge violent narratives. For example, making the point that a country's or community's problems are not going to be solved by the sort of zero-sum arguments that become more attractive in times of conflict. 

Again, this plays a role in improving conditions and positioning the country seen as responsible as a potential parter, arbitrator etc. 

Propaganda broadcasting on the other hand is likely to be counterproductive. Audiences, even those in the most remotest of places, quickly catch on when they are being lied to or patronised. They usually then either switch off or take what they want from the broadcaster and ignore the underlying message. (Like say al Hurra). 

If like the US or the UK, you seek to draw international legitimacy on the basis of a set of values. Public-funded broadcasting is very cost-effective way of showing you mean what you say.

As a British taxpayer rather than an American one, Londonstani is no position to offer comment on how the US organises its affairs, but would agree with Alex's point on this:

"I would argue that to enhance a mission of accurate, objective and comprehensive journalism, it is time to remove USIB altogether from government control and funding."