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Obama’s BBC Public Diplomacy

Oct 1, 2010


In his exclusive interview with the BBC Persian Television, President Obama responded not only to the Iranian president's remarks at the UN General Assembly, but also to some of the concerns of Iranians and Afghans with regards to his administration's foreign policy. Beyond the harsh rhetoric on who is to blame for 9/11, this appearance on BBC Persian has a few notable implications for U.S. public diplomacy apparatus in general and its policy towards Iran in particular.

The fact that Obama went to the BBC to talk to Iranian people signals the weakness in U.S. public diplomacy apparatus, namely its own international broadcasting to Iran. Since the U.S. government has established its Persian TV service within Voice of America (VOA PNN) and funded it for nearly 15 years, why should the U.S. president resort to another country's public diplomacy network to speak to a foreign audience? The reason lies in the size of audience one can reach. Obviously VOA has not been able to reach a sizable audience inside Iran. The unfortunate case for VOA is that BBC Persian service (established in 2009) is newer than VOA PNN, and yet, with its high standards of journalism, has managed not only to overtake Persian channels like VOA but also reach a position where it could be considered a potential instigator of political unrest in Iran. Obama's speech to Iranians via BBC is certainly a signal to the people in this country but also an alert to producers and editors of VOA PNN who almost certainly watched the interview with envy.

Obama's BBC public diplomacy indicates another shift and that is a huge step towards the (old) policy of considering Iranian government separate from its people. While early in his presidency Obama adhered to engagement; realities in Washington, elections in Iran, and problems on nuclear issue soon weakened his political power. Now, in his interview with BBC, Obama seems to be following the same path as other U.S. presidents. He stands tough on human rights issues, adheres to sanctions, does not rule out an Israeli pre-emptive attack on Iran, and tries to talk to the Iranian people rather than their government. Considering Tehran's anger with BBC Persian, one could infer from Obama's talk on the BBC that he has washed his hands of dealing with Ahmadinejad's administration and would rather weaken it by sanctions and supporting the Green movement in favor of a future change in the political atmosphere. There are certainly many ordinary Iranians that have heard Obama on BBC Persian, but it is probably the politicians in Tehran who understood the message as more than just the refutation of Ahmadinejad's comments. The broadcast signaled the emergence of a sophisticated change in foreign policy which will probably continue until either Obama’s or Ahmadinejad’s presidential terms end.


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The premise of this post is

The premise of this post is misguided, sorry to say. VOA's Persian News Network is watched by more Iranians than BBC Persia by every measure of audience I've seen, including those conducted by the BBC. Current studies (2010) show PNN's reach at 20%, and the BBC Persia's reach at 10%. This is not to take away from the amazing job that BBC Persia is doing. They have made a huge impact in a short period of time. I respect their work quite a bit.

The reason why President Obama gave the interview to BBC Persia is based on the idea that, had he given the interview to PNN, it would have furthered the idea that PNN is an extension of the US government's voice, rather than an independent source for news and information. The BBC is credible, and thus the interview was received better via BBC Persian than PNN, with the added benefit of some perceived distance between PNN and the Obama administration.

It is understandable that the

It is understandable that the White House selected BBC Persian. This avoided the perception, however incorrect, that VOA would have asked softball questions.

An interview with the President would also have been a mixed blessing for VOA. Provide too much time to senior administration officials, and people might start referring to VOA as part of the "U.S. public diplomacy apparatus." No genuine news organization would want to be called such a thing.

More about this at my website....

@Shawn Powers,

@Shawn Powers,
I am surprised on the "reach" data you refer to. I think we should also distinguish between the "reach" which is mostly a technical issue, and the real number of audience (people who watch).
And again, as you mentioned correctly, it is BBC's credibility that matters most. Now, isn't that the case that primary goal of every media outlet is to be credible? if PNN can't reach that level, then it is very much an indicator of a failure in its function and reception among Iranians.
And finally, I believe, the real number for either of the network is less than the percentage officially mentioned.

IT is obvious to most of the

IT is obvious to most of the Iranians, especially those who watch VOA, that it is a US PD tool, but they want to hear their voice as well, so no need to be afraid of that. Very much like BBC Persian. Most of the Audience is aware of the fact that BBC is a UK PD tool as well. The tough questions are really intriguing and again credibility is elephant in the room!

I think it's better to accept

I think it's better to accept that BBC has more audience than VOA. For me these 2 could be the reasons:
1- For a long time PNN have been seen for Iranian as a Voice Of America. Sometimes we are looking for Voice of Iran that American one.
2- BBC proved itself as a supporter of Green movement after last year election by 24hours programming. The time watching VOA,BBC,... was impossible in Tehran and some other big cities after 5pm(and later even in the daytime) BBC was the only source beside mostly filtered internet news networks for getting news about movement.So it is not hard to believe for me that BBC has more audience than PNN.

I am Iranian and I know the

I am Iranian and I know the Persian audience of both VOA and BBC. As far as my observation tells BBC has a higher number of viewers than VOA. And, there are two reasons for that: First, Iranians historically and traditionally have known BBC(English version) longer than VOA and also consider BBC a more reliable source than VOA.
Second, BBC is working more professionally which matters for the audience; young staff, attractive settings and modern technical methods of production and broadcasting are all among the reasons why people of Iran are more appealed to BBC than VOA, although BBC is working for a much shorter time.
But, on Obama's interview content, I have not noticed a sign of his support of Green movement or that he is not willing for any diplomacy with Iran's government. I just felt he wanted to express his absolute unhappiness with Ahmadinejad's speech.

As usual, I didn't read all

As usual, I didn't read all of comments, but either you (I mean reader not the author)believe in VOAPNN as an extension of US PD and BBCPerisan as an UK PD apparatus, or just new faces of US or UK traditional diplomacy; It's really interesting that an official with the highest possible ranking in American Constitution chooses a British medium to deliver his message! I don't know shall we take it as something in 'special relationship' or alike, or it's gonna to be something innovative in which a president from A takes a tool from State B to talk to People of Country C. The American President is not a Track-II figure and BBCPersian is not a Iran focused TV.

I just want to mention some

I just want to mention some points
1- In comparing BBC and VOA one of the facts that one has to have in mind is the historical back gerund of these two media in Iran. BBC the radio has long historical background in Iran, especially during the Iranian revolution in 1979
2- The problem with Obama's public diplomacy which is not limited to him is his ignorance with Iranian culture, its exceptionalism and its historical background
3- And about the, "[Obama] tries to talk to the Iranian people rather than their government",I think public diplomacy means talking with people not the governments, so I don't see any problem in him talking to Iranian people
4- The thing about Obama's Public Diplomacy in his interview with BBC is that it was not an action designed for talking to Iranian but more it was a reaction to Ahmadinejad's media diplomacy in U.S

The United States is bound by

The United States is bound by a bi-lateral agreement not to interfere in Iran's internal affairs, period. It is so hypocritical of Obama to be addressing the Iranain people using BBC (interesting article regarding the BBC and Murdoch - does he think the is not violating the bilateral agreement? Stop interfering in Iran. If the US cared about human rights, it would not make a guinea pig of other people, send drones to cill innocent civilians ,etc.

I know that very few people

I know that very few people in Iran watch BBC other than a some monitors paid by the government. Not even Ahmadinejad watches it, preferring VOA Persian. These are the facts.

(Why do I know? Because I made them up. Apparently no one is required to conduct any research anymore to voice opinions. So why not join in the fun?)



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