Mandy Johnson - Europe is changing, British Council needs to change with it

Britain's Times newspaper recently reported sweeping changes to the British Council - the UK's worldwide network that promotes cultural activities and runs English teaching courses. The paper claimed that half of the British Council's public offices in Europe would be closed by next year, as attention is shifted to the Middle East and Central Asia. The British Council in Prague is not facing closure, although there will be some changes to how it operates. But what exactly is the Council? That's a question we put to director Mandy Johnson.

"The British Council aims to build mutually beneficial relationships between the UK and the countries in which it operates, and it is very much about mutual relationships. It is not about the UK coming along and saying we have all the answers. It's about sharing experiences and ideas between the two countries. And it's also about sharing ideas and the creativity of the UK as well."

So it's partly about showcasing Britain's culture and talent to the world?

"I'd say with a very small 's', in terms of showcasing. Yes, of course we're very proud of the creativity and ideas that come out of the UK, but we also recognise that we don't have an exclusive right to all of this."

Recently there were some changes announced to how the British Council is run. Can you give us a brief synopsis of them?

"Yes, I'll try and be brief. For the last 18 months or so we've been really looking globally at we're doing as an organisation. There have been various drivers for this. One of these of course is the UK government's wish to ensure that it's getting value for money from all of the government departments, and the British Council like every other government department is included in this review. It's also driven by a wish for us to be seen to be working very much for the Foreign Office on the one hand, and looking at public diplomacy agendas, but also a feeling that the world is changing, Europe is changing, and the British Council needs to change with it."

Photo: archive of Radio Prague
Some in the British media presented the story as - parts of Europe are no longer a priority for the British government, and that they were cutting down the British Council's presence in Europe and shifting the agenda to the Middle East. You say it's not as simple as that.

"It's never as simple as that I think. We've been looking as an organisation at where the priorities lie, and the Middle East and other areas of the globe are definitely high on the list of priorities. It doesn't mean to say that Europe is a lesser priority. It just means that it's where we have to focus on where we spend our grant. What we're hoping with the British Council is that we will be working with bigger and better and different partners as well in Europe, which will enable us to carry on doing the kind of work we want to do, and seek funding from the European Union, working in partnership."