Peter Horrocks, Director, BBC Global News
Becoming more global
Thursday 14 April 2011
Check against delivery
Thank you, Charlie, for the introduction and for inviting me.
I thought I'd start by playing a video illustrating how we at the BBC have been covering the recent huge events in the Arab world. See what features of it you think might be novel for an international news organisation.
Remarkable and brave coverage by the BBC's teams in North Africa and across the Middle East. And many news organisations have had impressive records in their response to the recent crisis.
But striking as the personal bravery has been, it is not that I wished to draw your attention to. I hope you noticed the prominence in much of that material of the BBC's non-English language teams – in particular the work of the teams from BBC Arabic, as well as BBC Persian.
Those two new TV services, just four years and two years old, are now not just reporting to their own language audiences, but working right alongside the BBC News English teams. So you saw Assad Sawey in Egypt appearing, injured, alongside presenter Lyse Doucet.
But not only were Arabic correspondents appearing when they had been involved in trouble, but they appeared regularly on air, giving eyewitness accounts of what was happening in Egypt and providing in-depth analysis in London studios, as you saw.
And more recently in Libya our Arabic service teams were operating in joint newsgathering units with BBC News (and of course exposing themselves to significant risk as you saw with the clips of Feras Killani and Goktay Koraltan, after they were held and brutalised by Gaddafi forces).
It means that we have individuals who come from the countries we are reporting and speaking the relevant languages fluently, working with our globally known English News teams.
We have an increasingly bilingual workforce, able to operate in English and their own language. They are encouraged to report for TV, radio and online. So we ask them to be multimedia and multilingual.
Those are the new watchwords for the heart of the strategy for BBC Global News in the years ahead. We believe it is one of the most ambitious and innovative undertakings ever in international journalism – with some fascinating opportunities and risks.
Today I want to set out why and how we are setting about that key strategy for our international services, which we call Becoming More Global. And how I hope other news organisations will rise to that challenge as truly international journalism is increasingly under threat.
Why would the BBC be going to the trouble of ensuring its teams can work multilingually and making massive organisational changes to ensure we have the technology and culture for that to work smoothly?
One obvious reason, although a minor one, is efficiency. We are operating in a tight financial environment. BBC World Service has been undergoing a deep restructure following the UK Government's Spending Review which cut our funding by 16% and required us to close five valuable language services.
But the key reason for this organisational change is not financial – it is because the BBC's global and impartial perspective is our greatest competitive advantage.
Despite the fact that we still have the largest audience and highest reputation globally of any international news provider, we cannot be complacent. In fact we face more competitive threats than ever before.
But we believe the unique advantages we have in having a workforce drawn from 27 different language groups supplementing our renowned English language newsgathering operation gives us an advantage that few other international news organisations can match. It is an advantage we must maximise and make relevant to our audiences.
I believe that any international news organisation is going to need to think very hard if it is to be competing in a genuinely global manner, rather than just exporting a single national news culture to the world.
Let me turn to that tough competitive environment. Whilst all the major international news organisations may look impressive at a global level (for instance, the BBC's current global news audience reach we estimate is at 241m),when you look in most individual markets we are all relatively small. The strength of local news providers, whether in the US or Europe or in the markets of Africa or Asia, means that international news sources are increasingly seen as secondary.
The BBC's reach ranges from 2% in India (although large in numerical terms) to over 30% in Nigeria. We know that in the bulk of our markets, audiences get their primary news from local providers, whether commercial or state funded. Even places like Afghanistan are now rapidly growing media sectors. It is estimated that there are now about 175 radio stations and 75 terrestrial television stations operating in that country.
However in markets where there is a shortage of reliable locally provided news a significant minority will turn to international news sources (as they do to the BBC in great numbers in Afghanistan) and a larger number will use news from the BBC as a second source. And across all markets there is a strong audience niche that has a confirmed interest in international news.
These are not solely wealthy members of elites. Instead they tend to be from all sectors – characterised by their curiosity, their outgoing mindset and their awareness that international events increasingly impact on their lives.
The younger audiences among them are typified by their optimistic outlook, seeking to understand their place in the world whilst they may never have the opportunity to travel widely themselves. They are enthusiastic users of technology.
To fully understand our increasingly globalised world requires all of us to be aware of and understand trends, themes and events from across the globe.
In recent months the BBC has reported many surprising examples of how global stories can be directly relevant to audiences many miles away from where stories happened.
When the fighting started in Libya, one emerging story for our south Asian services was the plight of thousands of migrant workers stranded there. While the government of Bangladesh was unable to mobilise efforts to get its citizens out, the BBC Bengali service told the story of those migrant workers, looked at their experience and challenged the response of government ministers.
The economy is the classic global story that also has immense local relevance. Last week, our Africa service team explored how the economic recession in America is affecting people's lives in Africa. The reports told the story of African migrants who cannot find jobs and as a result are turning their back on their unfulfilled American dreams.
And we are experimenting in multilingual investigative journalism. A recent season where we examined Extremes in the world dug into the subject of corruption. A poll conducted for us indicated that corruption was one of the primary concerns of our audience. It is an under-reported subject but one that plays a key part in political frustrations and popular uprisings. We tackled this theme well before the Middle East turmoil, by drawing on the insights of our multinational teams.
So, if relevant global content is increasingly the editorial mainstay and purpose of the BBC's journalism, how do we set ourselves up to deliver that and how do the various international news organisations compare in their ability to deliver?
There is an explosion of state-funded international news at the same time as there is a dramatic cutting back in resources by most commercial news organisations. China announced a $7bn expansion programme for its overseas media operations, including an increase in foreign bureaux for its global English news channel CCTV from 19 to 56 over the next three years.
The traditional international public service broadcasters make noble efforts to retain global newsgathering and broadcasting. But of them only Voice Of America and its sister US broadcasting organisations have truly global scope.
VOA has 44 languages, 17 more than the BBC, although its audience reach is lower than the BBC's. It is disadvantaged in comparison to the BBC as it has no alliance with a US-based news partner of scale. National Public Radio in the US has made impressive investments in international journalism in recent years and PBS makes a commitment as best it can afford. But they are entirely separate organisations from VOA.
This lack of coherence across US public broadcasting hampers the US from bringing the strengths of its global language services together with a properly funded domestic news organisation, the unique advantage that is available to the BBC.
The new entrants into international state broadcasting, from Russia and China, have the muscle to be global in their distribution and reach. However they hardly have the intention of being global editorially. Their purpose so far seems to be to develop news services that allow then to put a distinctly national slant on coverage.
CCTV's stated purpose is "to voice a Chinese perspective on world affairs and to break the Western voice's monopoly on the news". This may well have appeal for audiences who want to understand a variety of perspectives and in parts of the world where Chinese influence is increasing, there may be a growing market. But I doubt that many people around the world will want to rely for a global view from broadcasters who are fundamentally one-sided.
The other key news broadcasters with a genuinely global perspective are obviously CNN and Al Jazeera.
Each of these is making efforts to move from their nation-specific roots to be broader.
CNN still reflects in its production style and its editorial preoccupations its US origins – and for many around the world that remains an attractive offer. It has over the years increasingly developed news partnerships (eg in India and Turkey) where its global content is adapted locally and content flows back from partners. CNN's marketing tag "go beyond borders" pinpoints well the importance of globalism in their editorial approach.
Al Jazeera started from a particular Middle Eastern perspective, but has since made strides in becoming more global with the launch of Al Jazeera English. Its editorial agenda and its talent recruitment has been diverse and they are making strong efforts in throwing off the burden of the initial reputation that Al Jazeera Arabic attracted. Al Jazeera now broadcasts in Arabic, English, and has plans for the Balkans and Turkey among others.
Of course there are other truly international news organisations beyond broadcasters.
For instance, The New York Times and the UK's Daily Mail and Guardian have genuinely global ambitions. However none of those organisations has set out to produce a fully global agenda, in the way I am defining.
The Daily Mail's approach is to make dramatic personalised news appeal to a global English audience. The Guardian has set out, in its words, to be the world's "liberal voice". It is designed to have widespread appeal, but by definition it is coming from a particular perspective. The New York Times's view of its own impartiality would reject the idea that it addresses the world from any particular perspective and it certainly retains strong international newsgathering to allow it to report from multiple perspectives. However its readership, both print and online, is still overwhelmingly US-dominated, whereas only a small proportion of the BBC's total news audience comes from the UK.
So how do the BBC's efforts to produce journalism that is from the world and to the world compare to that competition?
Of course our efforts to produce journalism that is relevant for as large a proportion of the world as possible are not new, but the model we are using is changing rapidly.
The BBC's global English service, then called the Empire Service, was founded in 1932. In 1938 our first language services were started. But the language broadcasting of news was not then built on reporting from those countries or primarily reflective of those countries. The production process was a centralised one where news bulletins and features were written in English then faithfully translated into the vernacular and broadcast by announcers. It was a World Service but it was a service to the world not from the world.
Twenty years ago an internal revolution took place in the BBC's language services. They increasingly recruited journalists and expected the teams to find and report their own stories about their part of the world, as well as translating the international stories from the English newsroom.
At the BBC we believe we now have an unrivalled internal network to be able to gather and retell those global stories. By making sure we have the right skills, the right languages and the right culture to ensure we share our knowledge, we can create a global network – a combination of the English newsgathering operation enhanced by the contribution of language services journalists – where stories from all our teams and all corners of the globe are part of a uniquely diverse mix of stories.
But we can no longer do it within our own walls. We need to network with our audience and we need to network with partner news organisations. We can no longer be fortress BBC. And that requires some dramatic changes in our mindset.
We need to change to serve our audiences better and we need to change, as we can no longer afford not to.
That change will be personified in the new BBC news centre in central London that we will move into in less than a year's time.
New Broadcasting House, attached to the BBC's historic domestic radio headquarters in central London, will house the largest broadcast and online news operation in the world – home to around 2000 journalists. For the first time the BBC's greatest dual strength – its UK news operation and its international news operation will be housed under one roof.
But we won't just be sticking the two teams together and leaving things as they are. Instead we are working on imaginative plans to blend the teams to get the best from them. So experts and programme makers, in areas like the arts, sciences or business, will sit together, working on breaking news as well as in-depth documentary. They will be able to share knowledge and we will ensure that the best editorial talent has the widest range of outlets to broadcast and publish to. And our newsroom will be full of a mix of talent from around the world.
This is what becoming more global is about. This year we are creating a pioneering video production unit which will be staffed by producers from many languages – Russian, Arabic, Spanish, Persian, Urdu, Portuguese and English. They will create the best stories from around the world and make videos in their native language and in English. That material will be adapted and translated by their colleagues. That way the very best stories will not just be seen in one part of the world, but will be available to everywhere.
And of course that will work both ways. Material produced for English-speaking audiences will be rapidly adapted for use in several languages.
This exciting new way of working is likely to prove a model for how much of our global news is produced in the new HQ. Not only will it be cost-effective but, much more importantly, it will mean that our agenda, which already strives to be truly and even-handedly global, will be driven further by our multinational, multilingual approach.
But is an attempt to achieve a truly international news agenda a naïve one, particularly at a time when competitors are providing news that is more tailored or more slanted to a particular viewpoint?
And, in the age of the internet, is there any need for a news organisation to aspire to do what the internet itself can do – be both the source and the distributor of the news?
There is no doubt that the internet, whatever the debates about how it undermines business models, is brilliantly conceived for news. It is inherently open to free information and perspective, the lifeblood of news.
The BBC certainly doesn't see the internet as a competitor. Instead we exploit its every advantage and try to make sure that we respond to its challenges.
The great potential of the internet lies in its global scale – in information and in viewpoint, but that also creates its weakness. While you can obtain a truly global viewpoint from the web, most users do not have the time to search out that information or its range of perspectives. Indeed there is some evidence that news sources and opinions sought are narrowing, as users focus instead on quick and easy headlines and/or views that fit their own preconceptions.
In the drawbacks of internet news, the BBC sees an opportunity. By using our own internal network of journalists and partnering with audiences in providing us with rich sources of information, we believe we can synthesise our own original journalism together with the best information that is out there. We can provide what we have always aspired to – the most accurate and authoritative account of global events.
In an era of a myriad of voices and views on the web and airwaves, is the BBC's attachment to impartiality – hovering above the globe in an attempt to have no viewpoint – now outdated or philosophically impossible?
The achievement of absolute impartiality may be hard but the attempt to approach it still motivates us and brings us our vast audiences. We realise that some audiences want news from particular perspectives. But, as a global citizen, why just inform yourself with one view on a story? The ability of professional non-biased news organisations to bring a range of views to bear is still valued by audiences and is an essential complement to the cacophony of the internet.
The world is becoming more global as the economy, climate and technology bring us into greater interdependence. But much of journalism, due to budget cuts, is becoming less global. We should applaud all news organisations that are struggling to be as global as possible.
For our part, the BBC will strive to become even more global, serving the needs of a globalised audience. So in the offices and cafes of the new BBC News HQ there will be a multitude of faces and languages from all over the globe. They will be better placed than ever before to contribute to setting the BBC's news agenda.
Within our own walls and outside it we want to create a network that respects all views, that tests all information and that always strives to tell the world the way it is. We know we don't always get it right, but that aspiration motivates thousands of the BBC's journalists, whether they come from Manchester or Mumbai.
We will be blending those great teams together, delivering on our mantra of Becoming More Global. We believe it will be one of the greatest experiments in international journalism that London and probably the world have seen.
We will be opening our doors in a year's time. I hope that all news organisations and members of the public who have a passion for reporting the world as independently as possible will come to see how we are doing. And I am sure our audiences will let us know whether it works.
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