New media, dialogue and 'lifeline' communication
Director, BBC Global News
The Director of BBC Global News and Chair of BBC Media Action is delivering a keynote speech in Australia.
I'm in Brisbane this week for the Commonwealth Broadcasting Association (CBA) conference. It is focusing on media leadership during international crises, disasters and emergencies - an area in which the BBC has a long history. From special radio programmes during World War II to response to floods in Cumbria in recent years, the BBC has provided information to help UK audiences cope with extreme events. More recently, we have developed skills in helping audiences outside the UK respond to crises.
I was struck by the comments of Mark Scott, MD of Australian Broadcasting Corporation, in describing the ABC's pivotal role reporting emergencies in recent years, especially bush fires and floods. Increasingly, information from the audience via social media plays a vital role in emergency broadcasting.
At the BBC we also try to place audiences at the heart of what we do - and when disaster strikes and we respond with 'Lifeline' broadcasts - that audience priority is especially critical.
In the developing world, where people are most vulnerable to humanitarian crises, the BBC World Service plays an important role in reaching people with critical information. In recent years, programming has provided a lifeline for listeners in Haiti following the earthquake, in Pakistan during the floods, and in Somalia where people continue to face challenges around food insecurity.
It's not just about one-way communication. New technologies, especially the mobile phone, are making it increasingly easier for listeners to interact with broadcasters and with each other. Through phone calls, text messages, and social media, audiences affected by crisis can share their stories, reflect on the impact, and hold those responsible for delivering aid to account.
Linked to this, in my speech I was pleased to be able to refer to a new policy briefing from BBC Media Action called Still Left in the Dark?: How people in emergencies use communication to survive - and how humanitarian agencies can help. The publication highlights the role of communication with people affected by crisis, focusing on the potential of new media.
The briefing emphasises that while the humanitarian sector is geared to meeting the immediate physical needs of survivors, it doesn't always focus on the information and communication needs of those affected.
Previously, the main danger was that people affected by humanitarian emergencies would be left in the dark when disaster struck, deprived of the information that would help them to understand what was happening and what they could do to survive. Now, it may be the humanitarian agencies themselves - rather than the survivors of a disaster - who risk being left in the dark if they don't have the right systems to be able to listen to the public they are attempting to assist.
As growing access to new technologies makes it more likely that those affected by disaster will be better placed to access information and communicate their own needs, a key question arises: are humanitarian agencies prepared to respond to, help and engage with those who are communicating with them and who demand better information?
The Communicating with Disaster Affected Communities (CDAC) Network is working hard to get the humanitarian sector communicating better with the people it serves. Recently, BBC Media Action helped by sharing experiences of Lifeline programming and partnering at an event at Google that examined the role of media and technology in emergencies. You can see Tin Htar Swe, Head of the BBC’s Burmese Service delivering her 'Ignite' presentation here.
It has been a fascinating conference. The Secretary-General of the CBA, Sally-Ann Wilson, has emphasised to the public service broadcasters gathered here how vital media can be in saving lives. We all leave this crucial gathering re-committed to ensuring we help serve audiences with appropriate information whenever disaster strikes.