Connect to share and comment

Global media war for airwaves

New state-funded international broadcasters challenge dominance of BBC and CNN.

“I think the United States is just not in the game,” agreed Columbia University President Lee Bollinger, who has called for consolidation of U.S. public broadcasting resources into a new, better-funded, globally-focused, American World Service, modeled on the BBC.

Bollinger argues that such a service would provide a vital, non-ideological counterweight to many of the newer global channels, though he acknowledges there is little likelihood of such an expansion right now. “It’s a pity for the world,” he said, “and a pity for the United States.”

If the U.S. is, in fact, losing the global information war, that is a dramatic turn from the past. Many of the emergent broadcasters say their mandate is to provide an alternate viewpoint in a conversation that has long been dominated by the voices of the United States, Britain and a handful of other Western countries with global media outlets. Today, CCTV-International seeks to be “China’s CNN.” Al Jazeera English purports to give voice to the voiceless — in other words, those regions and peoples neglected by the Western media.

In an increasingly interconnected world, a robust virtual presence becomes increasingly important. As Rome Hartman, executive producer of BBC World News America put it: “Every nation that is ambitious in terms of playing a global role … feels like they have to have a global voice.”

The proliferation of international state-sponsored broadcasters can also be understood as an attempt to extend power and promote policy. As it becomes harder for governments to suppress the flow of information, the role of soft power — of influencing opinions through information and argument, rather than by force — becomes increasingly important. The global media war is about shaping perceptions, rather than dominating them.

“Everyone’s going to advance their point of view,” said Kathleen Reen, a vice president at Internews, an international media development organization.

The question to ask now, says Reem, would be: “Who is actually taking in this information, and what are people doing with it?”

That’s a question without an easy answer. The Al Jazeera network now reaches 220 million households around the world, according to Tony Burman, chief strategic adviser for the Americas, and BBC officials describe the network’s English-language channel as the most serious of the new global competitors.

“We believe we are as global a news channel as exists,” Burman told a free press forum at Columbia University last November.

But international broadcasters seldom release concrete numbers on how many households are actually watching their programs, and their broad estimates are usually impossible to corroborate.

Many of the emergent state-sponsored broadcasters lack the funds or expertise to compete with longer-established and better-financed media corporations. Others target smaller, niche audiences. France 24, for example, operates channels in English, Arabic and French, and the French and Arabic services have built strong followings in its former African colonies and the Middle East.

But money isn’t everything when it comes to wooing a global audience. Despite a budget that is believed to be quite generous, China’s global English channel, CCTV-International, offers dull programming that reflects the heavy influence of the state that funds it. Few would regard it as much of a threat to other global broadcasters.

“You [the viewer] all are your own editors now,” said Simon Wilson, Washington bureau editor for the BBC.

As their access to information expands, he said, viewers “will pick on reputation and values. In this regard, I think the BBC has a great advantage.”

But the field of choices is increasingly crowded, and the BBC and other western media giants face increasingly sophisticated competition from all quarters. It will take more than reputation for any one voice to maintain its place in the conversation. As Internews’ Reen put it, we all have to “get more comfortable with a world that has a plurality of voices.”

Global Media Wars is a project of 15 reporters from the Columbia University Journalism School’s International Newsroom. The reporters monitored five state-funded English-language news channels whose programs are available via satellite, cable or Internet livestream.