The former US ambassador to Denmark on how he used reality TV for diplomacy and the bbc’s expanding language services.
It hardly sounded like a gripping premise, even by the undemanding standards of reality TV: episodes would feature the protagonist studying a foreign language, babysitting his niece and preparing to attend a parade. But because that protagonist was Rufus Gifford, the genial US ambassador to Denmark, even the more quotidian aspects of his life turned out to be interesting. In fact, they made Gifford, the star of I Am the Ambassador, a celebrity in Denmark.
Though he had no political experience and little knowledge of Denmark (“I thought it was all Vikings and fairy tales”) when he was appointed ambassador in 2013, Gifford came to believe he could make a difference. “Relations between Denmark and the US were good,” he says. “But this was during the Snowden scandal, and there was a level of distrust. I wondered, if we could tear down the walls and humanise the work of diplomacy, could we heighten the trust between the US embassy and the Danish people?”
The answer lay in expanding the nature of the diplomat’s work. “There’s certainly a group of people who think the ambassador’s job is to sit in the office, write op-eds and meet politicians,” he says. “But for me it was also about bringing a modern style of communication to diplomacy, in order to connect with people.”
When a Danish television channel approached him about doing a show, Gifford jumped at the chance. Over the course of two seasons, Danes watched as he struggled to learn their notoriously difficult language, met with their queen and, in the show’s joyful finale, married his husband in Copenhagen’s town hall. The series made him so popular that even after leaving his post in 2017 he still tours the country giving sold-out lectures about his former job and US politics, particularly the country’s divisive president. “The point,” he says of the talks, “is not to bash America. The point is to give Danes hope and faith. I want them to know that there are big parts of America that are not taking this lying down, that are marching in the streets, and that there is a surge in young, progressive leadership.”
Now, after declaring that he’s running for Congress, he’s hoping to have just as big an impact back home. Gifford won’t, of course, be the first person to go from reality TV to politics but his decision was shaped in opposition to Donald Trump, rather than in imitation of him. He hopes to achieve similar things as he did in Denmark. “Politicians are among the least popular professionals in the US because of a deficit of trust,” he says. “And I’m obsessed with building trust.”
As guest of honour at the recent Guadalajara International Book Fair (the Spanish-speaking world’s biggest gathering of publishers), Madrid’s pavilion hosted a programme of discussions highlighting how much Spain’s capital has changed 42 years after the death of Franco. “For many, Madrid was the regime; this generated a negative image,” says mayor Manuela Carmena. She wants to use this “book diplomacy” to help write a more progressive narrative, one better reflecting the city’s evolved status as capital of Ibero-American culture.
Jamie Angus has been working for the BBC for nearly 20 years, on flagship programmes such as Today and Newsnight before moving to the World Service in 2016. His remit includes expanding the number of languages that the BBC’s foreign services are broadcast in.
Why does the BBC think it’s important to broadcast in foreign languages?
When the World Service began [in the 1940s], Britain still had an empire. There was an important strategic role in broadcasting in foreign languages overseas.
The BBC began expanding the number of languages in 2016. What’s behind the push?
With the World Service, the Foreign Office has a say in whether the BBC opens or closes a language service. These can never be commercially funded but there is a public service to them. They aid national security and the soft power benefits flow back to the UK. In 2016, we announced that we would increase the number of foreign language services from 30 to 42.
How many people do these services reach?
The BBC as a whole reaches 372 million people a week, outside the UK. Our target is 500 million a week by 2022. But the aim of the foreign language services isn’t [numerical] reach but to hit a very specific group.
What challenges do you face in extending your network?
Some countries don’t want our broadcasts. The BBC Chinese-language website is blocked. Our Russian TV distribution is small. Forming stable relationships with other countries can be difficult.