Journal of Public Deliberation, Volume 8 (2012), Issue 1
, Shawn M. Powers and William Youmans, "A New Purpose for International Broadcasting: Subsidizing Deliberative Technologies in Non-transitioning States." Excerpts...
"In countries where internet access is insufficient, can international broadcasters provide a special forum for many-to-many deliberation? International broadcasters have access via television and radio to many places where internet access is non-existent or where state controls limit dissent. Can they re-define new missions using non-traditional Internet technologies, such as mobile phones, in combination with the powers of broadcast to facilitate deliberation and information flows where they are currently poor? ...
"In November 2011, months after popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt and amidst ongoing political ferment in Bahrain and Syria, VOA launched the Middle East Voices (MEV) portal (middleeastvoices.com). Distinct from the U.S. government financed Middle East Broadcasting Network (MBN), the portal is exclusively online and its goals explicitly deliberative. ... Speaking to the unique need for state- supported projects in transitioning and repressive states, [MEV managing editor Davin] Hutchins (2012) argued: 'Our goal is our public diplomacy, which is different than the goal of The New York Times. We want to make sure that the exchange of ideas and ideals is taking place, despite challenging circumstances, where freedom of expression is lacking. We also want to make sure the ideas and ideals that are germinating in the public sphere are made public and accessible to English speaking audiences. These are not the goals of privately run news organizations, but our site and the VOA takes them seriously.'"
The goal of the audience, however, is to obtain the type of reliable and comprehensive news not available in their own countries, but available from independent outlets such as the the New York Times, if not from the Voice of America. If US international broadcasting conflates journalism and public diplomacy, the results will disappoint.
The proposal for international broadcasting to "facilitate deliberation" is interesting. It's not actually a new role. Over the decades, international broadcasters, through their mailbag programs, have solicited and broadcast listener comments, which begat other, contrasting listener comments.
A more recent version of audience participation was VOA's "Talk to America," a daily call-in program that began in 1994. That show recently was discontinued, perhaps a victim of internet-based media overtaking the telephone as medium of choice of choice for "deliberation." The BBC's "World Have Your Say" carries on, however.
Perhaps a more important BBC forum is the Doha Debates, chaired by former BBC correspondent Tim Sebastan, and broadcast eight times a year by BBC World News television. In fact, the Doha Debates have been flattered by imitation, including Deutsche Welle's "The New Arab Debates," also moderated by the rather busy Tim Sebastian, and the BBC Africa Debate.
All of this shows that a trusted international broadcaster can be an effective moderator of discourse. It must be seen as an authoritative but neutral player. The BBC has been unambiguous in its commitment to independent journalism. US international broadcasting, whose new mission statement has jettisoned "accurate and reliable news," may not instill such confidence.
Furthermore, the BBC's stature is enhanced by being one of the world's most famous brands. USIB is a confusing confederation of "many brands." The VOA sub-brand has had a good reputation in the Middle East, but it has been fading from memory since VOA ceded its Arabic Service to the new Rado Sawa in 2002. In any case, Middle East Voices understates its association with VOA, presenting itself as yet another brand of USIB.
Moderating debate can open a can of worms. From the Middle East, much public opinion will consist of pointed opposition to Isaeli and US policies. Yes, the anti-semitic dreck must be eliminated, but if input that is opposed to US and Israeli polices is also snipped, a pro-US bias will be apparent. If the natural flow of opinion from the Middle East is unabated, an anti-US bias will emerge -- much to the displeasure of Congress. The facilitation of deliberation may be a no-win situation.
The 7,070 "likes" of the Middle East Voices Facebook page is to be compared with the weekly audience of 33.4 million for BBC Arabic radio and television. To be sure, MEV's likes and followers will grow, but at present the score is Old Purpose 33,400,000, New Purpose 7,070. New Purpose has some serious catch-up ball to play.
New Purpose may be the outcome of the new IBB mission statement, in which "connect" has been given equal billing with "inform." But does international broadcasting really need a new purpose? There is still plenty of work to be done in Western international broadcasting's original purpose. There are still many countries that do not enjoy independent journalism. Western international broadcasting provides accurate and reliable news, and finds ways to get that content into countries that try their best to keep it out. This is the unique function of international broadcasting. In terms of attracting audiences, it is the haymaker.
Yes, encourage audience, or "citizen," input, and use it if warranted, but do not let it become the tail that wags the dog. If US international broadcasting tries to become the latest popular social media app, it will find itself lost, forever, in the crowd.