THE BRITISH COUNCIL-PROMOTING BRITISH VALUES?
The BC has a funny way of representing British culture and values? Kow Towing to the Chinese for starters
Parliament has given the British Council the right to take public money to “promote cultural relationships and the understanding of different cultures”. The Observers Nick Cohen worries that it is now in breach of its Charter.
At The London Book Fair at Earls Court last month organisers said that this year’s “focus” would be on China. Nothing wrong with that .However, the problem was that in order to keep Beijing sweet, claims Cohen, the organisers refused to invite writers – as “visiting authors” – who might upset the Chinese regime. Cohen says ‘The event’s managers struck me as cheerful capitalists. They want to help publishers strike deals and make money. No harm in that, particularly when they can argue that the promotion of propaganda and suppression of free thought have not been arranged by the commercial arm of the fair but by the cultural bureaucrats at the British Council. Ma Jian, a Chinese novelist, who was not invited to Earls Court, listed the ways in which the British Council was working against cultural freedom. “These big events give China’s Communist party the international face it craves and helps normalise its repression of free speech back at home,” he told Cohen .Cohen continues ‘ He went on to make the unarguable point that the British Council was harming the British public as well as the cause of the Chinese reformers. “By excluding all genuinely independent and critical voices,” he said, “the book fair has allowed the Chinese authorities to export their censorship to a western democracy. Instead, the literary world is being asked to applaud 31 state-approved authors the book fair administrators and the censors at China’s General Administration of Press and Publication have invited to speak on the glories of their nation’s literature.’
Cohen is not alone in finding this all decidedly odd, although seasoned British Council watchers are more used to such shenanigans and counter-intuitive behaviour from the BC. One of Britain’s leading authorities on China told Cohen that an editor instructed him to not make unflattering remarks about the Communist party in a piece to accompany the fair. Cohen continues ‘ Others described a seminar at the British Council in September on how the British should think about freedom of speech in China. It was chaired by Claire Fox, of the Institute of Ideas, the successor organisation, it transpires, to the British Revolutionary Communist party. Cohen continues ‘This sinister clique moved as one from the totalitarian left to the corporate right without stopping at any worthwhile point in between. Observers in the audience predicted that China’s combination of communist dictatorship with capitalist exploitation would appeal to Fox. They were not disappointed. We should stop talking about human rights and freedom of expression, she said. We should hold our own government to account rather than engage in “China-bashing”. Writers, she concluded, have always benefited from the creative stimulus of censorship. By her logic, there was no need to protest when oppression was good for them. It was “worse than risible”, Jonathan Heawood, director of the free expression charity English Pen, told me. “I was surprised that no one from the British Council was prepared to rebut these absurd assertions.”’
David Blackie, of International Connect, though is unsurprised by these revelations. He writes on his blog ‘The bottom line is, of course, that the British Council’s commercial ambitions in China are far more important than the defence of freedom of speech, or an ethical foreign policy, or the representation of any residual British values.’
The British Council, though nominally a charity, contrives to compete in the markets through at least eight limited companies and is encouraged to do so by Ministers. Being a ‘Charity’ it is not subject to the Freedom of Information Act, so much of what it does with taxpayers money, lacks transparency. It is hard to know exactly what it does do although mission creep, writ large , is a charge laid at its door . It is an aid agency, teaching agency, cultural agency and a private sector commercial operator all rolled into one. Its allowed to get away with this because the political establishment allows it to. Parliamentarians many of whom have benefited from BC hospitality in the past form up to support the BC when asked to without at any point challenging its hybrid status, or asking some basic questions about its efficacy.
We know, for example , little of how effective it is, and whether or not it provides value for money although it routinely makes unsubstantiated claims that it gets a marvellous return from its activities . If its so good, then how come it needs to be so heavily subsidised, or ,indeed ,subsidised at all? There is strong suspicion in the markets that what it does could be better done by other providers, whether for profit or not for profit, and, importantly in these austere times , at no cost to the taxpayer.
The British Council has also come under criticism recently for its closeness to the ousted Gadaffi regime. It is a fact that Gadaffis officials were being educated by the British Council, using British taxpayer’s money. These ‘educated’ officials then upheld the values and protected the status of what was, demonstrably, a totalitarian and repressive regime, somewhat out of kilter, one would have thought, with any popular conception of British values. But the self-serving elite who run the BC, protected by the FCO, seem to think that they are the guardians and representatives abroad of our values. Not mine.
Our former Ambassador to Kabul ,Sherard Cowper-Coles was clearly surprised during his tenure that the British Council was distributing books of dubious quality to an Iranian backed Mosque, throughout his time there, including that classic‘Chemistry for Dummies’. Why are we taxpayers subsidising Iranian backed Mosques one might wonder, let alone with silly books?
Having been funded by the FCO, the BC now, in addition, draws funds from our aid programme (DFID) so purports to be an aid agency too now, much to the annoyance of bona fide aid charities. The BC also, apart from representing ‘British culture and values’ abroad, claims to represent UK education interests. If this is the case then how come it has managed to alienate most UK education service providers by its anti-competitive behaviour in these markets(and the poor quality of its service). They complain to the government, with some justification, that the subsidised BC competes against them for the same contracts abroad, while concurrently claiming to represent them. Unfair, and a conflict of interests? You bet. And does the government do anything about it? No. Yet HMG rates education as one of its top export priorities . Joined up thinking, and government? I think not.