Day: June 26, 2011

New Deal for BBC World Service Weakens Britain’s Soft Power?

Una Marson, George Orwell, T.S. Eliot and others at the World Service during WW2
The reputation of the BBC World Service around the world reflects that of Britain generally. It’s an institution tied to colonial history. It aspires to global reach. Through its journalism it tries to uphold values of impartiality and objectivity, and therein lies the attractive, soft power dimension. As an institution, however, it cannot escape appearing partial – it is funded by the British state, and that state wouldn’t continue to fund it unless it was serving Britain’s interests. Therein lies the appearance of hypocrisy that taints Britain’s soft power. But this week the British government announced a new funding mechanism, and yesterday Peter Horrocks, Director of BBC World Service, spoke about the changes to an audience in London.

The BBC World Service is currently funded by a direct grant from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), Britain’s State Department. While a Royal Charter prevents the FCO interfering in the editorial content of World Service programming, the FCO can decide which foreign language services are strengthened or cut. In the last decade, Arabic and other strategically important language services have tended to do quite well, others less so.  Last year the government announced the World Service would be funded through the annual licence fee people in Britain must pay in order to receive BBC content legally. The World Service will be just another part of the BBC per se, its tie to the FCO less obvious. This week the World Service was granted extra funding not least because of its performance through the Arab Spring and supportive comments from Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese opposition leader.
The problem for the World Service now is that it is just another BBC service, funded by taxpayers. In the current economic malaise, taxpayers might feel extra hospitals are more important than Hindi radio. Horrocks suggested that the World Service is highly regarded by British citizens. But historically, the value of World Service programming is to those in conflict zones and diasporic publics who consumed its cultural output. People in Britain gets a more parochial, national BBC news and are probably unaware of the range and impact of World Service programming.
As the World Service becomes increasingly integrated into the general BBC – sharing technology, content, staff, and buildings – and as it has to justify itself to a home audience, so its distinctiveness would seem under threat. Horrocks seemed optimistic. For example, the fragmentation of media across devices, formats and languages and creation of innumerable niche micro-audiences is not a problem because the World Service has the tools and expertise to repackage the same news for all possible outlets.  While China, Russia and others may be investing huge resources on rival global broadcasting organisations, the World Service retains the credibility borne of its professional, impartial journalistic ethos (note that Al-Jazeera has been criticised for treating different Arab Spring uprisings in very different ways, prompting aprickly reaction). 
Horrocks finally turned to the question of soft power. He argued that the World Service does not aim to project soft power, but that paradoxically it does create soft power for Britain because the objectivity of World Service journalism becomes associated with Britain. A moment later, however, he said the World Service aims to project and change people’s perspectives, to “impart impartiality”. Imparting sounds very much like changing minds. Changing minds is an instrumental goal for the FCO, who want the world to “do business with Britain”. Does this make the World Service an unwitting instrument of the FCO? This ambivalence is exactly why the World Service is open to charges of hypocrisy.

Horrocks must be thanked for speaking openly and taking questions, and it is important that the World Service continues to engage in critical discussion about its role and purpose. I would be interested to know whether the chiefs of CCTV or Russia Today hold free flowing public debates.


Realist Dreams

 The Realist tradition in International Relations long ago won the big battle by getting the best name.  By calling itself Realism, the realist tradition makes all other approaches to IR seem idealistic, based in dreams but not realities.  Anything but grounded in hard, cold calculations of how things really are.  But the joy of realism is how often its acolytes indulge in fantasy.  Ah, but only if we could have the good old days of the cold war, for instance.* 

*  Insert gratuitous cite of Mearsheimer’s piece in International Security.

Who do realists look to as their latter-day Bismarck?  Henry Kissinger, of course, who was a Realist thinker at Harvard before serving as National Security Adviser and then Secretary of State.  So, it is far from an accident that Gideon Rose cites the Kissinger/Nixon exemplar when suggesting to Obama a way out of Afghanistan.  Leave by lying.  The best way to preserve national power and enhance national security would be to get out of Afghanistan as quickly as possible, as frittering away more resources on an unwinnable war is anathema to a realist, just as it was when the drain was South Vietnam.  But just picking up and leaving quickly hurts the reputation, so try to leave in a way that provides a decent interval between exist and the collapse of one’s ally.  And lie about it.

Rose acknowledges that this is hard, due to domestic politics, but more or less wishes away such constraints.  More problematically, he does not recall the consequences of the Kissinger/Nixon strategy, especially when you”lay down suppressive fire so the enemy cannot rush into the gap you leave behind.”  That would be bombing Cambodia and Laos and invading the former (not to mention the War Powers Act).  Rose cites drones as being better than the “ham-fisted” approach.  Sure.  But what happened to Cambodia after the US left?  Just a smidge of genocide.  Ok, perhaps the most catastrophic episode of genocide in per capita terms–one quarter of Cambodia’s population if I remember correctly.

So, the big question is really not so much what happens to Afghanistan after we leave if we do not leave well, but what happens to Pakistan?  A nuclear-armed Pakistan, with a most broken set of civil-military dynamics, on-going insurgencies, deep poverty, extreme corruption, an irredentist campaign targeting its larger and nuclear-armed neighbor.  Hmmm.  I guess it is better to be a Realist** and ignore this ugly bit of reality. 

**  Some of my friends and students confuse me for a Realist since I do tend to think that power has a great deal with shaping outcomes. I just don’t think power or security influence the choices leaders and states make as much as Realists aver.


Does Menstruation Explain the Gender Wage Gap?: A Kiwi theory

The CEO of the Employers & Manufacturers Association, an association that promotes New Zealand businesses, Alasdair Thompson sparked a heated debate last week when, during a discussion on equal pay, he publicly claimed that women’s productivity was impacted by their periods. He claimed that women “take the most sick leave” and explained “ you know, once a month they have sick problems. Not all women, but some do.” He later went on to say “Men and women are fortunately different. Women have babies. Women take leave when they have their babies.” In a subsequent interview he claimed: “Some women have immense problems with their menstruation – immense problems. You know they can pop a lot of paracetemol and drag themselves into work, but it’s hard for them.” Thompson seemed to only make matters worse when he later rationalized his comments by referencing one of his receptionists who he says told him that when some women call in sick they cite their periods as the reason.

Is it possible in 2011 that a top CEO could honestly believe that the main reason for pay disparity between men and women is menstruation? Really? This story is so frustrating that it is difficult to know where to start. Logically there are three main assumptions that Thompson is making that warrant examination: first, that women take more sick days than men; second, that menstruation is a major factor in women’s sick days; third, that these period-induced sick days help explain the gender pay gap.

The first assumption- that women do indeed take more sick days– is true, but not significant. In New Zealand men typically take 6.8 sick days a year, with women taking 8.4. While there are no clear statistics available for the US, studies in the UK also show, on average, men take 140 days off sick during their career, with women taking 189 sick days. A Finnish study also found that while women were 46 percent more likely than men to call in sick from work for a few days, there was no statistically significant difference between men and women in terms of their long-term leave from work.

The second assumption- that menstruation is a major factor in women’s sick days- is much more difficult to substantiate. The New Zealand study indicated that menstruation was not a significant factor in women’s sick days. The Finnish study noted that working conditions for women were consistently poorer for women and could be a primary factor in fatigue, and sickness rates. The UK study indicated that single mothers had the highest rate of sickness absence, indicating that family pressures could be a factor in sick days. The UK study also found that women were more apt to “try their hardest to make it to their desk” and “feel guilty” if they fell sick.

The third assumption- that period-induced sick days help explain the gender pay gap- is the weakest link in Thompson’s unfortunate logic. Decades of activism and research surrounding equal pay legislation and policies have shown that the biggest factor in the wage gap is attitudes.

Thompson’s comments reveal embedded misconceptions and stereotypes surrounding women’s ability to contribute to the global workforce. Thompson is right on one account- women are different from men. Women are (at least for now) the only sex that can carry children and give birth. Further, most women are the primary caregivers to children- regardless of their work duties. Recognizing these two differences in more rational and supportive ways should result in changes to workforce policies rather than accusations of female liability.


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