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Media Diplomacy: What role for Transnational News?

There has recently been a huge growth in transnational English language television channels, with the launch in the UK of Al Jazeera English, Press TV (Iran), CCTV9 (China), France 24 and Russia Today.

These join existing channels such as CNN International, Voice of America and BBC World TV. But what are the purposes of these channels? Who are they for and who is watching them? Do they constitute a global group of English speaking nations, an ‘Anglosphere’?

These are some of the questions that will be debated today (Thursday 22nd November) by media professionals and academics at a workshop, sponsored by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), entitled ‘Transnational TV News and Media Diplomacy: Al Jazeera English in Context.’

Led by Professor Marie Gillespie of the Open University and Dr. Ben O’Loughlin at Royal Holloway, University of London, the workshop will also look at some of the other reasons for the existence of these channels, besides being professional news providers and part of profit-making organisations. These include being:

• A vehicle for public and cultural diplomacy, or soft power, in world politics. - these channels appear to offer nation-states a means to project their voice, their policies and their interpretations of events in the global media – to assert and maintain a presence in the global Anglosphere.

• A means to reach diasporic audiences - first generation migrants often sustain close attachments to their country of origin through satellite television, but as the mother tongue becomes hard to maintain for second and third generations, so new ways are being found to reach them and create a sense of diasporic nationhood and belonging across geographical distance.

• A tool for development - arguably, the line between diplomacy and development is becoming increasingly blurred in UK and US foreign policy. To what extent do transnational English language channels like Al Jazeera English and Press TV challenge UK/US foreign policy and development goals?

These questions will become more important in the coming years as these channels are used increasingly to shape world affairs. Does the huge growth of channels mean that they are popular or that people are watching them? In their struggle for exposure, credibility and legitimacy, questions can also be raised about the independence of such channels from, and accountability to, home governments.

Speaking about the workshop, Dr. O’Loughlin said, “Given that many of these English-language media channels are being funded by governments, we should be asking what these channels are for. Are they simply to attract audiences, or do governments expect to influence international affairs through TV stations? Given that France, Russia, Iran and China have all recently launched English-language TV stations, does this mean countries only feel they count as a ‘power’ if they have a voice alongside the BBC and CNN in the emerging ‘Anglosphere’?”

Speakers at the workshop include Dr. Mohammed El-Nawawy of the Queens University of Charlotte and Shawn Powers of the University of Southern California, who are beginning a study entitled Al-Jazeera English: Clash of Civilizations or Cross Cultural Dialogue? Their study examines the impact of Al-Jazeera English in five countries, and asks whether such media can have peace-making effects in world politics.

There will also be a discussion of findings from the recent Economic and Social Research Council funded Shifting Securities project by Marie Gillespie, Ben O’Loughlin, Prof. James Gow, King’s College, London and Dr. Andrew Hoskins, University of Warwick. The project explored how cultural and religious diversity affect news reception and the specific responses of British Muslims to media and security policy. It has also highlighted how changes in the technologies, ethics and practices of journalism shape the security stories and how they are interpreted.

Dr O’Loughlin said, “Is this all part of a shift towards new forms of ‘soft’ power, using less obvious forms of propaganda than, say, the American Arabic channel Al-Hurra? Our research on the Shifting Securities project shows audiences are often alert to attempts by governments to manage news agendas, and it is very easy for stations to lose credibility if they are seen as too close to political patrons.”

He added, “It will also be interesting to see whether Al-Jazeera English and other media decide to conduct audience surveys to assess if these channels have any impact in different countries. With today’s fragmented global audiences it will be very difficult to measure this, and it remains to be seen how these channels will prove their value.”

Danielle Moore | alfa
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