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Mark Byford

Director of BBC World Service and Global News

Connecting with a world audience

Tuesday 29 April 2003
Printable version

Speech given to the AIB Global Media Business Conference 2003

Please check against delivery

Good morning ladies and gentlemen - thank you Nick for your introduction, and thank you Simon for setting the scene for today's session.

This conference comes at a momentous time for all of us involved in international broadcasting.

Obviously, the war in Iraq, the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime and its aftermath have been uppermost in everyone's mind in recent weeks.

Global news services have never been more prominent or important.

However, the war has demonstrated that while the world may be connected technologically, it is far from connected in terms of mutual understanding.

Here's the paradox:

Today's world is increasingly interdependent, yet increasingly mistrustful and fearful.

It is a world that is often gravely lacking in understanding and tolerance.

It is a world that is awash with information, yet ignorance and propaganda are rife.

It is a world in which issues are more complex but news coverage is often more simplistic.

You could call it a disconnected world in a world of globalisation.

Some media organisations will be tempted to play to this sense of disconnection and alienation.

News programmes that reinforce a particular point of view may win audiences - but they do not necessarily serve those audiences well.

I believe the challenge for international broadcasters is to provide trusted, reliable information, to make sense of this complex, confusing and contradictory world, and to provide a forum for the exchange of ideas.

At its best, international broadcasting has the potential to foster understanding and establish a genuine dialogue across cultural, linguistic and national boundaries.

There has never been a more important time to connect with our audiences and encourage them to connect with each other.

But it is no easy job.

As international broadcasters, our world is changing faster than ever, and our markets are more competitive every day.

Every broadcasting organisation represented at this conference will have its own strategy for dealing with these challenges.

At the BBC, we have recently established a new Global News Division, bringing together BBC World Television, BBC World Service radio and our international-facing online news sites, to provide a more integrated and cohesive offer to different audience groups in different markets around the world.

We believe that this move will help us to connect with our audiences even more effectively.

In the next few minutes, I would like to consider some of the issues we all face.

Let's start with Iraq.

Inevitably, the war and now its aftermath dominate our thinking at this time.

The past few weeks have been truly remarkable for us at the BBC.

For Iraq, we were providing a lifeline service of trusted information to the Iraqi people through the BBC Arabic Service, whilst at the same time coalition forces were tuning in to the World Service in English on the battlefield and as they advanced to Baghdad and meanwhile at the Central Command in Doha they were watching BBC World.

That's quite a role and quite a responsibility.

During the war, we reported every day on the toll of dead and wounded, and all too often, to our sorrow and dismay, that included broadcasters and journalists.

At an international broadcasting conference such as today's, we remember colleagues who were killed and injured in this war, and we think especially of their families.

The death of Argentine camerawoman Veronica Cabrera two weeks ago brought the death toll among broadcasters and journalists to 14.

Many more were injured.

At the BBC, we are saddened by the deaths of our cameraman, Kaveh Golestan, and Kurdish translator, Kamaran Abdurazaq Muhamed.

The BBC's world affairs correspondent John Simpson, who narrowly escaped serious injury himself, was among those who paid tribute to both men.

He had known Kaveh since 1988 when he had reported on Saddam Hussein's use of poison gas against the Kurds.

John made the point that it is not always easy for an Iranian to work for the BBC in Iran, as Kaveh did, nor to operate in wartime Iraq independently of coalition forces.

War reporting can never be entirely safe but we must do all we can to minimise the risks.

As broadcasters, we must all ensure that our journalists and broadcasting teams undergo hostile environment safety training as a matter of course.

And safety is not just a concern in war zones, as the International Federation of Journalists has pointed out.

In countries all over the world, journalists have been imprisoned, beaten up, expelled and threatened.

The federation has highlighted another worrying trend - specific targeting of correspondents.

In that context, we must support our journalists and clearly uphold their right to do their job without fear or intimidation.

We must be equally robust in defending editorial freedom and our independence.

As with most conflicts, news organisations ran into criticism from all sides in this war.

Either we were not devoting enough time to the deaths of Iraqi civilians, it was argued - or we were giving wall-to-wall coverage to anti-war demonstrations.

In the early stages of the war, some western critics rounded on the media for reporting from behind so-called 'enemy lines' in Baghdad.

Some American networks ignored huge anti-war protests taking place in central New York before the war. It was thought to be unpatriotic.

Then there was Al Jazeera's decision to screen explicit footage of British and American prisoners, broadcast around the world.

The BBC was variously accused of following a script written by the White House and Downing Street, or fostering sympathy for Saddam Hussein.

Different constituencies often expect the BBC to support their cause.

However, the reason we have been so successful over generations is that we are not an arm of the state. Even at times of crisis, our first duty must be to our audiences.

In deciding what to show, and what not to show, we must be guided by their needs and interests.

Independent reporting cannot be confined to facilities provided by just one side or the other. A range of voices is critical.

Embedding has been an important and remarkable development in reporting this war. Vivid reportage. Extraordinary access to the battlefield. A real sense of being there.

It undoubtedly contributed graphic and immediate coverage, and it allowed more freedom than we might have expected.

But all the powerful images could never provide a full picture - and that was always the big challenge for us, to ensure these reports were placed in their proper context.

As the BBC's defence correspondent Jonathan Marcus describes it, "it was a war seen through several keyholes". Putting together the big picture as accurately and effectively as possible proved a challenging task but a really important one.

Our job is to make that picture as broad as possible, as balanced and accurate as we can make it, and with strong context and analysis so that audiences can understand what is happening and make up their own minds.

Being first with the news is not everything. Indeed, it is more important to be 'second and right' than first and wrong.

Accuracy is a prime concern at the BBC, and our international news programmes have to be especially careful and cautious because so many of our audiences look to us to find out whether what others are saying is true.

But we all make mistakes, and none of us can pretend to be above reproach simply because we are public service broadcasters.

Maintaining our credibility is vital to help with the reconstruction of an independent and pluralistic media in post-war Iraq.

That has certainly been true in Afghanistan, where for years people have relied on international broadcasters such as BBC World Service for accurate news of what was happening.

Now international organisations are giving practical assistance to Afghan journalists and broadcasters through training and advice.

Among them is the BBC World Service Trust, which was set up to promote development through the media.

The results are encouraging.

The transitional government has pledged support for a declaration recognising that new laws must protect and promote the media.

The declaration acknowledges the media's importance in making government open, transparent and accountable, and giving a voice to all members of society.

We are committed to helping to provide the same support in Iraq.

Perhaps it is still too early to draw definitive conclusions from the war.

It has undoubtedly shown why international news broadcasting per se is more important today than ever.

It has also shown how rapidly the whole nature of international broadcasting has changed.

The core values of trust, independence, impartiality and being audience focused remain vital.

But in a disconnected world, we must recognise that perspectives can be radically different between different countries and cultures.

That includes perceptions of impartiality.

What we believe to be impartial reporting may be regarded quite differently by some of our audiences.

What sounds impartial to one listener here in London may appear blatant bias to another listener say in Cairo.

But being firmly committed in everything we do to impartiality is a challenge for all international broadcasters.

We must be constantly vigilant about the tone and range of voice presented in our news programmes.

We must be vigilant about our use of language. Unlike many US broadcasters, the BBC did not routinely describe coalition forces as 'liberators'.

We must also ensure that editorial independence from government is clear and transparent. We must be fair and balanced - but as Greg Dyke, the BBC Director-General, emphasised last week in a speech, reporting dissent is an important requirement for an impartial broadcaster.

We must never be afraid of asking tough questions of those in power.

During the war, it would have been all too easy to stick to a formula of Bush and Blair statements and live press briefings with Tommy Franks, followed by a clip of an Iraqi minister.

However, not many listeners in Cairo or Amman would have thought that sounded impartial or balanced, and they would have been right.

It certainly wouldn't have presented a full, comprehensive and accurate picture.

We rely on the professionalism and experience of our journalists to reconcile these differences and continuously reflect the full spectrum of debate.

We talk about it and discuss it all the time. During the war, I met with Greg Dyke and senior editors every day to reflect on our coverage and discuss these decisions on an ongoing basis.

Like other international broadcasters, we are fortunate in having journalists from all over the world working for us. They contribute a special insight into our audiences that informs all our news programmes.

At the BBC, the experience and insight of our Arabic Service colleagues and other regional broadcasters has been of immense importance during the Iraq war.

They ensure that we are able to present a broad world perspective on air - in English and our 42 language services.

It was our Arabic News Editor, for example, who first explained the significance of a shoe being used to beat the picture of Saddam Hussein.

Reflecting different perspectives to our Arabic listeners under Saddam meant much more than reporting official lines.

Programmes and debates have chronicled the history of Iraq and explained the background to the regime.

Interviews with prominent opposition figures have formed part of a broad range of views.

We reminded listeners about the nature of the regime and its record of brutal suppression.

But we also highlighted the anger and concern felt across the Arab world at the war.

And the fact that we have the largest network of broadcasting correspondents rooted across the whole world means we are committed to eyewitness reportage, a global agenda and a truly international perspective.

International broadcasting can also respond to the humanitarian dimension of war and its aftermath.

As with so many previous conflicts, a practical form of support that we can give in this area is the 'lifeline' broadcast.

The BBC Arabic Service has just launched a special daily programme to do just that.

At a time when many families have been divided, it gives Iraqi people around the world, and within Iraq itself, the opportunity to make contact with relatives and friends.

Indeed, new technology, whether it is via satellite or on the internet, enables us to make these global connections more effectively than ever before.

Today's international broadcasting, combining radio, television and online services, can reach audiences anywhere in the world at a time when news consumption is fragmenting and diversifying.

More than that, new technology can provide an immediate, informative, intelligent, interactive platform for discussion and debate.

The contrast with the days of linear, direct 'push' broadcasting is dramatic.

Today's international broadcasting is now also very much a two-way dialogue of interactivity - a global arena for debate and exchange of views.

The BBC Arabic Service's new daily debate programme (Nuqtat Hiwar) has been a very relevant case in point.

It offers a forum for radio listeners and online users to exchange opinions across the Arab world, and for Arabic speakers anywhere around the world to take part.

Major global figures, local politicians and ordinary Arabs can all join in.

The programme has been receiving thousands of emails each day since its launch in March.

We believe that this type of debate can really help to achieve greater understanding, openness and dialogue.

Like email, text messaging has also given listeners a new voice.

Text messages to World Service English programmes grew ten-fold following the outbreak of war.

This feedback informs programme making and creates new opportunities for interactivity.

In this way, the war marks another milestone in the history of international broadcasting.

If the 1991 Gulf War was when 24-hour news came to the fore, in 2003, as well as embedded correspondents in the field, it has been the emergence of interactive debate utilising the net.

Our internet services as a whole have gone from strength to strength.

The demand for our online services has broken all previous records, demonstrating the appetite for news and analysis at a time of such uncertainty.

But there's also a wish to take part in dialogue and debate. Our daily interactive forums generated more than 350,000 e-mails throughout the conflict.

It shows why online investment, complementing radio and television, continues to be so important.

Traffic to the BBC Arabic site went up by 150 per cent following the start of the war.

The service received more than 15 million page impressions in March, compared with 6 million in February.

Provisional figures indicate there were more than 220 million page impressions to the BBC's international news sites in March.

That's an increase of 100 million in a month and a record - far exceeding the surge in traffic experienced immediately after September 11th, 18 months earlier.

Audio demand leapt to over one million users on the day war started, of which more than 350,000 were in Arabic.

Traffic to the special international-versioned news site in English almost doubled last month to 130 million page impressions, up from 72 million.

There were comparable increases in other languages such as Persian and Spanish.

Other international broadcasters will have seen take-up of their services rise during the war but none of us should be complacent.

The battle for audiences is fierce.

Audiences are fragmenting as they gain access to more and more choice.

Deregulation, greater choice and audience volatility is fuelled by rapidly changing technology.

We have all seen how short wave audiences swiftly decline when people can choose FM or satellite TV instead.

In global television reach, CNN remains the clear market leader but BBC World has made big gains in reach in the past two years.

It is now available in 255 million homes, in more than 100 million of them 24 hours a day. Eighty million households were added after the Iraq war broke out through terrestrial broadcasters taking BBC World's rolling coverage.

Regional competition is strengthening from international players such as Al Jazeera across the Middle East and the Gulf and new players such as Al Arabia.

On radio, the Americans are investing heavily in the Middle East, South West Asia and Indonesia.

On the internet, all major news broadcasters are increasing their services, and news media aggregators like Yahoo, Google News and AOL are providing new alternative sources.

Different markets around the world offer different sets of challenges.

For example, the United States is clearly an advanced media market.

There is particularly strong competition for decision makers and cosmopolitan audiences from America's 24-hour cable news networks, the core TV networks and hundreds of speech-based radio stations.

There are now 160 million internet users in the US, and the number of mobile users for news is growing rapidly.

And yet there is an increasing demand for BBC news output across America.

On radio, we now have our highest audience ever, with nearly four million listening on US Public Radio.

One in four opinion formers in Washington, New York and Boston listen to the BBC World Service each week.

On television, nearly a million viewers are watching BBC World via PBS.

The channel is now available in 86% of US TV households. Since the outbreak of war in Iraq, evening network news viewership is up 28% overall, and there has been a 33% increase for the six o'clock bulletin on WNET.

And 35% of our online traffic is from the US. The New York Times recently highlighted we are the third most used news website in the States.

Reese Schonfeld, a co-founder of CNN paid us this tribute: "I find myself watching BBC all the time," he said. "They are the only people who on a regular basis organise their material well enough so you get a feeling you know what's going on."

Media critics have praised BBC World for its 'refreshingly international perspective'. Clearly there is a real appetite for the BBC's balanced, objective, internationalist viewpoint.

Meanwhile in India, the market is extremely challenging for international broadcasters and the picture is changing very fast.

Overall, radio listening has rapidly lost ground to TV, and new local players have transformed the landscape of TV news.

Yet new local commercial stations on FM in major cities are still not allowed to rebroadcast international news programmes.

Indeed, they cannot broadcast any news.

There seems very little prospect of that regulatory ban being lifted in the very near future, restricting our own opportunities to rebroadcast our services in languages such as Hindi, as well as English.

We have inevitably lost radio audiences in a market where listening as a whole has been collapsing, especially on short wave. Less than one in four Indians are now listening to any radio.

In a country where TV reach has increased from 20% to 70% in less than a decade, TV news is increasingly competitive. Five TV news channels have been launched in the last few weeks.

Nevertheless, BBC World is the international market leader in news in India. Viewership has doubled since the start of the Iraq war.

Moreover, we are also establishing our online presence in a market that is growing rapidly, with one of the fastest growth rates in the world, and is expected to reach 30 million users by 2004.

In Egypt, media competition is intensifying, with greater choice available through satellite TV, international radio and online news.

Al Jazeera is leading the increase in satellite TV news penetration.

The Americans have radically realigned their own output through Radio Sawa, offering a music-led service with limited news to focus on the burgeoning youth market.

There's growing internet investment, with CNN launching its own online Arabic service to compete with our own and Al Jazeera's offering.

For BBC Arabic, our challenge is to remain competitive in the face of all this increased media choice.

We now offer a 24 hour service available on radio and the internet, which switched over to continuous news and analysis at the start of the Iraq war.

News programmes have been presented from both London and our new production centre in Cairo.

Because of regulatory restrictions, we do not yet have FM access in the capital.

However, the war in Iraq has been another reminder why short wave and medium wave remain so important in the region as a whole.

When power supplies failed in Baghdad and Basra, it was battery powered radios that have enabled people to go on receiving reliable, trusted information from the BBC.

And then there's Afghanistan, where the dominant position of international broadcasters is now set to change.

Local media are gradually re-emerging.

International partners such as the BBC World Service Trust are helping with media reconstruction, as I mentioned earlier.

TV will stage a comeback in the medium term, but radio will remain the major news medium.

The first independent audience research was carried out in Kabul following the launch of the BBC's FM transmissions last year.

It confirmed the massive impact currently of the BBC's Pashto and Persian services.

We now have an 82% weekly reach in Kabul, the highest of any international broadcaster in the capital, a majority of whom are already listening on FM.

That figure of eight out of ten is probably the highest reach of any international broadcaster anywhere in the world.

Internet traffic from Afghanistan obviously is still low - but it is particularly important for diaspora Persian and Pashto audiences around the world.

Moreover, on TV, BBC World has built up a weekly reach of more than 10% in Kabul and Mazar.

So there are four very different markets - four very different challenges.

How can we connect with target audiences in these areas, making the best use of the editorial resources and relevant technology available to us?

Above all, we believe that radio, television and online services must work together more effectively.

At the BBC, a more co-ordinated global news strategy will enable us to present a more united and cohesive offer to audiences around the world.

As I mentioned earlier, we have brought together BBC World Television, BBC World Service radio and the BBC's international-facing online services in a single Global News Division.

Commercially funded television now joins publicly funded radio for the first time.

We will respect the separate funding streams within a fair trading framework so that there is no cross-subsidy.

But the result is a 'one-BBC' global news service to audiences.

We will commission all the BBC's news services for world markets and ensure a more unified presence.

We will shape the BBC's offer based on audience need and media usage, market by market.

This will allow us to make the most of our editorial potential and strengthen our brand around the world.

It will enable us to achieve even greater impact and stand out more clearly in crowded marketplaces.

We shall be able to promote much more editorial collaboration, and co-ordinate distribution and marketing activities.

We are already seeing the results in joint radio, TV and online coverage of major events such as a high profile Iraq debate at the Davos economic summit and special tri-media interviews with key figures such as Donald Rumsfeld during the war.

Establishing this Global News Division is my top priority right now.

We have the aim of being the best known and most respected voice in international broadcasting.

Best known is about reach.

Most respected is about reputational standing for trust, objectivity, and impartiality.

Recent surveys in ten areas of the world confirm that the BBC is seen as the most trusted and objective of all international news broadcasters.

Moreover, when you consolidate our reach in radio, television and new media, we are the world's number one international news broadcaster in terms of usage.

The key for us is to maintain that position and enhance our reputational standing around the world.

I'd like to end on a personal note.

Like the editor of every international news organisation, a lot has been going through my mind in recent weeks.

I've touched on some of these ideas in this speech.

The importance of establishing a dialogue between different nations and cultures - of connecting the world in dialogue and understanding as well as technologically.

The importance of defending our editorial freedom and ensuring that we present a full range of views.

The importance of continually questioning not just those we interview but ourselves - about our approach to news programmes, and especially how we maintain impartiality.

And at an organisational level, the importance of ensuring that radio, television and online services work together effectively.

Above all, however, the last few weeks have reminded me of three things.

First, how much we rely on the professionalism, commitment and courage of our reporters and programme makers in the field.

When we talk about connecting with a world audience, they are the people who make the first and most important connection.

They are the eyes and ears for our audiences, and it is their skill, their courage and their professionalism that underpin everything else that we do.

I believe we, and our audiences, owe them a huge debt of gratitude.

Secondly, we must never compromise on our values - integrity, independence, impartiality, trust. They must be non-negotiable.

Indeed trust is the foundation on which our whole organisation rests.

We must report truthfully and fairly, and reflect a full range of opinions including those critical of government. Our first duty is to our audiences.

My third conclusion is about our responsibility and role as international broadcasters in a world that is at once globalised and yet, at times, filled with mistrust, misinformation, oppression, hate and division.

It is to use our skills to provide trusted, reliable news.

To be committed to context setting and analysis in an independent and impartial way.

But also to be a catalyst for dialogue, debate and mutual understanding.

By doing all of these things, I believe that we can contribute to making the world a better place.

Thank you.


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