BBC heads have dismissed claims that a £289 million ($361 million) expansion of the broadcaster’s World Service into eleven new languages, including a content intended for North Korean, is propaganda.
Fran Unsworth, BBC World Service director, admitted that the expansion – the biggest since the 1940s – is an expression of British soft power, while emphasizing the broadcaster’s independence.
“If soft power is about how you express Western values, fairness, rule of law, then the World Service is an expression of those values,” Unsworth was cited as saying by the Financial Times.
“But we are not there to support British foreign policy objectives.”
The plans, which are part of a broader strategy to expand the BBC’s reach from 348 million viewers and listeners to 500 million by 2022, also include an expansion of its Russian, Arabic and African services.
Chair of the all-party parliamentary group for Russia, Sir Edward Leigh, said that Russian President Vladimir Putin will likely see the move as “some kind of Machiavellian device,” according to the Financial Times.
“The problem is they will think we are all one team. They won’t understand the World Service is independent from the government,” he said.
Earlier this year, former MP and host of RT’s Sputnik program George Galloway branded the World Service a flagrant form of government propaganda, arguing that by virtue of its state funding the broadcaster must maintain a “political orthodoxy.”
“[T]he British Foreign Office and now directly the government itself from the central Exchequer pays the [BBC] World Service hundreds of millions of pounds to ensure the political orthodoxy of the output. That’s obvious,” said Galloway.
“It’s just pure snobbery on the part of the BBC to refer to other broadcasters as “state broadcasters” or sometimes “state-controlled broadcasters” – the BBC is the British state broadcaster.”
The World Service is also due to start transmitting radio programing to North Korea for the first time. The service, which has not been approved by the North Korean government, will include a daily 30-minute radio news program during the late evening and early morning.
It will be broadcast on both short and medium waves to maximize reach and prevent censorship by the North Korean regime.
BBC sources say the broadcaster is optimistic that North Korean audiences will be able to access the service, the Times reports.
New languages featured in BBC programing will include Amharic, Gujarati, Punjabi, Tigrinya, and Yoruba. It will also include more journalists on the ground in locations around the world.
BBC Director General Tony Hall said: “This is a historic day for the BBC, as we announce the biggest expansion of the World Service since the 1940s.”
“The BBC World Service is a jewel in the crown – for the BBC and for Britain.”
The shake-up comes at a time when the BBC is facing increasing domestic pressure over government funding.
Last month, MPs called on the government to take back responsibility for funding BBC Monitoring, a division tasked with translating and analyzing news from around world. Since 2013, the department has been funded by user license fee.
The division is now facing a £4 million ($5 million) shortfall, putting the jobs of 96 members of its staff at risk, as well as 40 percent of its posts in the UK and a fifth of those abroad.
In addition, the BBC has pledged to save £800 million ($993.5 million) annually over the next five years to fund the annual license fee for British television owners over the age of 75.