Marie Gillespie – Understanding the Changing Cultural Value of the BBC World Service and British Council

This project investigated the changing cultural value of the BBC World Service (WS) and the British Council (BC) and how their cultural value can be assessed and measured.

For eight decades, these organisations have been the face and voice of Britain overseas. Our research found that their attraction and influence abroad remains strong, but is on the wane, reflecting the UK’s declining economic and political significance on the world stage.

Building on prior research on these organisations as well as new historical, ethnographic and digital research, we developed an innovative, theoretically grounded and empirically informed Cultural Value Model (CVM).

This is a device for conceptualising, analysing and assessing value in a multidimensional, composite, visual way. The CVM can be used for planning, monitoring and evaluating specific projects as well as organisations over time. It can be used alongside existing performance indicators and impact measures. We have worked closely with our partners at the development stage and currently we are testing it on further cultural value projects at WS, BC and the Swedish Institute.

Our research and the design of our Cultural Value Model (CVM) developed iteratively alongside our findings on several key aspects of continuity and change at WS and BC:

First, the relative editorial, creative and operational autonomy of BC and WS from government control has lent their activities credibility and authority, and enabled them to forge a consistent ethic of practice that has guided generations of WS and BC professionals through political crises, wars, turmoil and tragedy. This professional ethos and its associated organisational memory, transmitted across generations, have been vital to the establishment of an enduring trusted and credible presence around the world. Trust is a product of the aesthetic and ethical dimensions of their operations: http://www.open.ac.uk/researchprojects/diasporas/cvp/case-studies/historical

Second, over the last eight decades, the funding and focus of WS and BC have shifted according to strategic, market and technological imperatives. The strategic context has shifted from Imperial to Post-Imperial, from Second World War to Cold War. BBC Language Services (currently 27) are opened and closed, grown or shrunk in accordance with strategic agendas and since 2001 and the ‘War on Terror’ there has been a shift in funding and focus to the Middle East. The market context also shifts. WS and BC used to have a strong presence in countries with underdeveloped markets in broadcasting or in English Language Teaching (the main source of income for the BC, on which their Cultural, Arts and Scientific activities hinge). They now operate in much more competitive markets and have to calibrate their operations accordingly. Similarly, technological innovation reframes value. For WS, shifts from Short Wave to FM, then the rise of TV as the primary source of news, alongside developments in web-based interactive technologies and social media, demand new vocabularies of value and methods for assessing success or failure which we have sought to open up.

The findings of our Twitter and Facebook case studies can be found at: http://www.open.ac.uk/researchprojects/diasporas/cvp/case-studies

Third, the cosmopolitan cultural value of BC and WS is enshrined in the capacities of their staff to travel and translate (literally and symbolically) across national and ethnic, cultural and linguistic borders, as well as to dwell inside the cultures in which they operate. This dwelling and travelling was, at first, made possible because of the global network of imperial diplomats, military, civil service, entrepreneurs, as well as journalists, fixers, translators at the ‘peripheries’. Staff overseas and at the metropolitan centre worked closely together, in asymmetric power relations. This imperial infrastructure facilitated the emergence of a colonial style cosmopolitan ethos and professional practices, which formed the basis of the global influence of WS and BC – at least until the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Fourth, the “national interest” is a loose and infinitely adaptable concept and necessarily so as it shifts in line with internal as well as external pressures. Paradoxically perhaps it is served by the cosmopolitan cultural value of BC and WS. Even if there is a unresolvable tension between the national and the cosmopolitan dimensions of their work (e.g. a love-hate relationship between the BBC and Middle East audiences it remains a significant reference point in confirming news).

Fifth, these organisations project, promote, represent values that Britain seeks to uphold: freedom of speech, the rule of law, parliamentary democracy, the rights of individual citizens. They enable the UK to present itself and its policies, lifestyle, culture, economy and polity in a favourable light. This is their soft power effect. Soft power is rarely achieved by crude propaganda or marketing and WS and BC recognised this from their inception. They sought to attract overseas publics to British institutions (broadcasting, education, law) by exemplifying certain admirable principles in their practices. In so doing they invited and encouraged emulation. This has been a key animating source of the soft power of BC and WS. But such cultural value cannot be assessed in instrumental terms.

Finally, our collaborative research and analyses underscore the co-dependencies of instrumental and intrinsic value. These organisations deploy the intrinsic value of the cultural experiences they offer in order to ‘also’ achieve instrumental ends. Visits to the BC’s libraries, exhibitions, events; new worlds opened up by learning English; the conversational value of listening to WS news bulletins; the aesthetic pleasures of the human voice; the cultural and arts programming that brought overseas publics closer to the UK; such work has attracted people to study, work, play and invest in the UK and has forged cosmopolitan cultural territories. The enduring significance of WS and BC lies in this rather subtle approach to communicating with overseas publics in idioms which they could understand and appreciate, while at the same time keeping funders satisfied, and making those who work for WS and BC proud to do so because of the international prestige that accompanied their jobs. Our CVM seeks to capture and assess these different dimensions of value in a practical, accessible but culturally sensitive way. If you wish to adopt, adapt and use it – just get in touch.

This collaborative project involved over ten researchers and was co-directed by Simon Bell, Professor of Methodology and Innovation at The Open University. (Contact: Simon.Bell@open.ac.uk). For full details see Final Report for AHRC on our project website – details above.

Marie Gillespie│Professor of Sociology│The Open University│Milton Keynes, MK7 6AA│Co-Director, Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change │marie.gillespie@open.ac.uk│ Mob: 07769 184253

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