by Tom Mills
In August the right-wing pressure group the Tax Payers’ Alliance revealed that the charitable wing of the BBC World Service, the BBC World Service Trust, had received £205,000 under the Foreign Office’s counter-terrorism programme. The money was provided to fund the Trust’s Afghan Woman’s Hour programme, which is broadcast every week in Dari and Pashto. Naturally the Tax Payers’ Alliance took this as evidence of wasteful government expenditure. What it overlooked though is the more worrying fact that a charity closely affiliated to the BBC was knowingly participating in a government propaganda project.
The BBC World Service Trust was set up in 1997 to train journalists and other media workers in the developing world and the former Soviet Union. It launched Afghan Woman’s Hour in January 2005 with the stated intention of empowering Afghan women and promoting their participation in Afghan society. The project was headed by Rachel Ellison, the BBC’s then International Project Director, who received an MBE for her work. Ellison now runs a Corporate Coaching and Media Consultancy with clients including HSBC, the Foreign Office and the investment bank Goldman Sachs which funds business training programmes for Afghan women.
Afghan Woman’s Hour was originally funded by the British Government’s Conflict Prevention Pools but was subsequently awarded funding by the Foreign Office’s ‘Engaging with the Islamic World’ fund. The ‘Engaging with the Islamic World’ fund was a propaganda programme set up to ‘Counter the ideological and theological underpinnings of the terrorist narrative,’ and has since been superseded by the Prevent team in the Counter Terrorism Department.
The Foreign Office has refused to disclose the grant agreement it signed with the BBC World Service Trust, which contains the agreed objectives for the project, claiming that to do so would ‘breach confidentiality agreements’. It has also refused to disclose full details of funding provided to any part of the BBC under its counter-terrorism programmes.
However, in response to a Freedom of Information request the Foreign Office did disclose a bidding form requesting more than £2.5 million of funding for Afghan Woman’s Hour. This document contains details of Foreign Office’s objectives which include the laudable goals of ‘sustainable good governance, human rights and development.’ However, it stipulates that the implementation of these ‘strategies’ are to be ‘agreed by London’, i.e. by the Foreign Office. The document goes on to explicitly state that another of the Foreign Office’s objectives in funding Afghan Woman’s Hour was to ‘increase understanding and appreciation among decision and opinion makers and the wider population for UK views and policies’ in Afghanistan. Research conducted in 2007 found that nearly a fifth of radio listeners in Afghanistan listened to Afghan Woman’s Hour every week and that 76% of men and 83% of women who were aware of the programme had listened to it in the last month. Whether the programme has had the desired impact on Afghan public opinion is another matter but the BBC World Service is certainly valued by the British military. In October the former head of the Army Sir Richard Dannatt spoke out against planned cuts to the World Service’s budget saying: ‘If we must cut into our nation’s muscle, let’s not cripple our nation’s message as well … The message comes relatively cheap.’
The Foreign Office claims that, ‘Projects delivered by the BBC World Service Trust for the FCO satisfy the charitable objects of the Trust,’ and that, ‘Any content produced will be fully compliant with the internal BBC Editorial guidelines.’ How exactly a radio programme funded by the British Government on the understanding that it will increase ‘appreciation’ for the war in Afghanistan would not violate of the World Service Trust’s legal commitment to ‘balance, fairness, integrity and professionalism’ is not clear. What is clear however, even from what little the Foreign Office is willing to disclose, is that the BBC World Service Trust has disseminated propaganda in support of a war which has nothing to do with women’s rights and everything to do with US and UK power.