The bilingual future of BBC foreign reporting

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As someone who has been involved in the training and development of staff in the BBC's Language Services over the past six years, I have long believed the talent there is one of the Corporation's untapped assets.

At a time when BBC Newsgathering is having to reduce and in some places withdraw international presence for budget reasons, BBC News will be relying more and more on Language Service reporters to fill that gap.

This is already happening. In Baghdad, for instance, the correspondent post is now a bilingual one: from March, Rami Ruhayem of BBC Arabic will be the BBC's man in Iraq. Rami will be filing in both Arabic and English for the whole of BBC News. Later this year the same is likely to happen in Beirut and Colombo, followed by Lagos, Nairobi and Islamabad.

What does this mean for the bilingual reporter, the BBC and its international news coverage? For the reporter it means re-evaluating just who the audience is. While you might not have to convince an Arabic audience of the significance of political change in Iraq, that may not be the same for the BBC Breakfast audience or that of BBC Radio 5 Live.

When I was devising the training for the bilingual reporters, I felt at times it was like trying to build Superman. Not only do these reporters have to deliver on as many BBC platforms as exist, without in many cases any production support, they also have to do their dispatch, online piece, TV track, radio package, two-way, tweet, and whatever else is requested, in two languages - and for multiple audiences.

And they have to do this with an excellent command of English, both for broadcast and writing, and in an accent that will get past the Radio 4 audience.

That is a very tall order.

During the training we mocked up a breaking news scenario. I asked a senior domestic newsroom editor to provide feedback on the reporter's English dispatches. They had also done the same in Swahili and Arabic.

For the BBC itself this is a big step, but arguably one that is long overdue. Take Rana Jawad, for example. For six years she quietly reported from Libya for BBC Africa English, until last year when the Arab Spring changed all that. Notwithstanding her own security situation, who better to report on what the revolution really meant for Libyans other than her? Of Lebanese origin, she could understand what was going on in Arabic; ask people how they really felt. She could read the blogs and tweets and understand the protests outside.

The same goes for Kevin Mwachiro (above) in Kenya or Tomi Oladipo in Nigeria. Not only do they speak the language, they know the region pretty well. The audience there can easily identify with them. This might not matter too much to the content, but it does matter to the image the BBC presents to the outside world. Look at how BBC World has tried to diversify its presentation to better reflect the world we live in and broadcast to.

There will be crunch points. Not least for competing demands on big stories. And we will have to see what is realistic to expect from a bilingual correspondent. But the BBC is in a unique position. It already has a wealth of excellent journalists who, in addition to English, can report in Farsi, Somali, Burmese, Arabic, Urdu, Spanish, among others. They are not there to replace but to work alongside well established correspondents such as Jeremy Bowen and Allan Little, with the added advantage that their language skills - English apart - are likely to be better.

Joanne Episcopo is the BBC's development executive for global languages. She is responsible for the training and development of bilingual reporters. Joanne previously trained journalists for the launch of the BBC's Persian and Arabic Television services.

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