Which state and national broadcasters are most successful at the winning hearts and minds of foreign audiences? How do they do it, and can it ever be impartial?  These were some of the questions at the heart of “World of Influence” an event held at the BBC Radio theatre in London.

A full summary, recording and transcript of the the event is now available on the BBC Academy website.

Hosted by Stewart Purvis, professor of TV Journalism at City University London, the seminar gathered experts and commentators to discuss how the broadcasters of countries such as China, Russia and the UK promoted national values around the world, and how this was being affected by today’s panoply of digital media, and the rise of new players in this landscape.

The ten most influential state-funded broadcasters producing content for foreign audiences in languages other than their own (in alphabetical order) were named at the seminar as:

  • Al Jazeera (Qatar)
    TV broadcasting in Arabic, English, Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian. Turkish service announced this year
  • BBC World Service (British Broadcasting Corporation)
    Radio broadcasting in 28 languages, with Arabic, Persian and Russian TV services
  • BBG (Broadcasting Board of Governors, USA)
    Supervises networks such as Voice of America and Radio Liberty, altogether overseeing services in 65 languages
  • CCTV (China Central Television)
    Broadcasting in Chinese, English, Russian, Spanish, Arabic and French
  • DW (Deutsche Welle, Germany)
    Radio broadcasting in 30 languages, with German, English, Arabic and Spanish TV services
  • Euronews (Founded and funded by a consortium of European PSBs and the European Commission)
    TV broadcasting in 13 languages
  • RFI/France 24 (Radio France International and French international TV)
    Radio broadcasting in 12 languages, France 24 TV broadcasts in French, English and Arabic
  • NHK World (Japan)
    Radio broadcasting in 17 languages, TV broadcasting in English
  • Press TV (Iran)
    Broadcasting in English
  • RT (Russia Today)
    TV broadcasting in English, Arabic and Spanish

In a video message, the political scientist Joseph Nye, who coined the term “soft power” in 1990 said that today in the information wars between world powers it is still true to say that is “not whose army wins but whose story wins”.

Don’t try this at home
Discussion turned to the reach of CCTV, and the hot topic of China’s focus on Africa.  The panel and some of the audience questioned CCTV audience figures. Panellist Xiaoling Zhang, head of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham said: “CCTV hasn’t conducted an audience survey… the results could be disappointing – there are not very many people watching in the UK.”

There was also the issue of broadcasters such as CCTV paying African countries to air the content they provide. But Peter Horrocks, director of BBC World Service commented: “To be fair, the French and the Americans also pay countries to take content.”

However Zhang observed the other side of China’s expansion into international media, it can try things out and go out on a limb: “We’re seeing CCTV experiment with [subjects] in Africa they wouldn’t do at home, such as human rights.”

Rolling the dice in America
The panel observed the rapid expansion of US operations for both Al Jazeera and RT. Al Jazeera America began broadcasting two months ago, having purchased Al Gore’s Current TV cable news network. Meanwhile RT has a large operation based in Washington DC producing hours of content in the US for the US, with personalities like Larry King featuring in its slick ads.

The room was split over whether RT’s remit to present an “alternative, Russian point of view” while remaining impartial was an unresolved paradox. Particularly in light of current controversies such as the Greenpeace activists detained by Russia, Edward Snowden, new anti-gay laws, and Pussy Riot.

But there was much consensus that in today’s world of information proliferation, propaganda is impossible in its traditional form, and that bias can quickly found out, with viewers voting with their feet.

John Owen, a former executive at Al Jazeera said of editorial freedom at the network: “I never heard anyone say, ‘we have to do this to get money from the government.’” However he emphasised he could only comment on Al Jazeera English. A media student in the audience said that the Arabic service was a different story, that it is used for “not just soft power, but real power”. As a result, she said, Al Jazeera Arabic had rapidly lost its audience in the Middle East.

It is too early to say what level of viewership and trust there will be for Al Jazeera America in the US. “They [have] rolled the dice in a big way,” observed Owen.

Digital arsenal
But how do international broadcasters compete with social media, and the Googles and the Apples of the world for eyeballs? By joining them, it seems. RT has become a hit on YouTube (owned by Google of course), attracting a young audience, perhaps primarily through its viral videos parodying Western financial systems, as one Russia expert in the audience commented. This year it became the first TV news channel to reach one billion views on the video-sharing network.

BBC, seemingly aware that it cannot rest on its 80-year-old laurels nor its international domination, has increased its collaboration with Twitter by launching #BBCTrending, allowing the broadcaster to embed short news videos in promoted tweets. However, according to Peter Horrocks, the BBC is already “by far the most retweeted news source in the world.” And it will need to employ every tool in its arsenal to reach its recently announced target to double its global to half a billion people in ten years.

There is little doubt that young audiences around the world will hold the key to a broadcaster’s influence, and there was some agreement that the idea of “trust” in media sources is being redefined, it’s not only about the stories, but how the broadcasters connect with audiences in a dialogue.

But in a fragmented media landscape, the networks and the countries they represent will have to find new ways to get their attention first. Simon Anholt, an independent policy adviser and a “nation branding” expert said:  “Younger audiences are not as cut up about trust as we are… they’re more concerned about attraction.”