The BBC, as part of its 2015 Charter Review document, announced proposals to “invest” in BBC World Service. This includes a desire for a “bigger digital presence in Russian through a new digital service on platforms such as YouTube and the Russian equivalent Rutube, together with TV bulletins for neighbouring states. We would also start a feasibility study for a satellite TV channel for Russia.”
These international initiatives, involving target countries of particular current interest to British international relations, may be a maneuver to restore government funding of World Service. In 2014, its income was transferred from a Foreign Office grant to the BBC annual license fee of television sets, which provides most of the money for BBC’s domestic services. BBC faces a likely budget cut, especially with discussion of replacing the license fee with another mechanism. Restored government funding of World Service would relieve the domestic BBC of that burden, and it would pay for much of the international current affairs coverage that BBC can use domestically.
The feasibility of BBC satellite TV for Russia is problematic. Very few Russians have rotatable satellite dishes, surfing the Clarke Belt in search of outside news. About 25% of Russian homeshave fixed Ku-band satellite dishes to receive proprietary domestic direct-to-home services such as TricolorTV and NTV+. Western Russian-language news channels are not included in these channel packages and are unlikely to be invited aboard. Content from Western Russian-language broadcasters, including Voice of America and Radio Liberty, is also legally not welcome on Russian domestic terrestrial television and radio stations.
With satellite and terrestrial television not presently an option, the BBC must maintain its dependence on the Internet to reach Russian audiences. This includes the Internet in all its forms: websites, social media, desktop, and mobile. And, in fact, the Internet is now the only conduit through which the BBC Russian content reaches Russia. BBC could expand and improve the online Russian news coverage it already provides, in text and video formats. And, through research and metrics, it must decide to what extent video, possibly even a 24-hour video stream, is worth the expense. It may be that Russians with Internet access prefer to read their news as text than watch it as video.
So far, Russia has not blocked the Internet content of Western international broadcasters, at least not on a continuous basis. The Kremlin’s repeated denials of any intent to block Internet content suggest that it has at least been thinking about it. And recent press accounts indicate that Russian authorities may even try to ban anonymizers and other methods used to work around online censorship. Circumvention tools would have to become even cleverer, and Russian users would have to be willing and able to use them. In an extreme scenario, Russia could physically cut off the landlines of Internet traffic into the country. Then no circumvention tool within the Internet Protocol would work.