BBC BLOGS - The Editors
« Previous | Main | Next »

Are Foreign Correspondents Redundant?

Post categories:

Jon Williams Jon Williams | 10:02 UK time, Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Today the distinguished Reuters Institute at Oxford University publishes a provocative paper, Are Foreign Correspondents Redundant? [1,013KB PDF]

Aung San Suu Kyi and John Simpson

John Simpson interviewing Aung San Suu Kyi

I should declare an interest: its author used to be my boss - twice! Richard Sambrook was director of News and most recently director of Global News; as the BBC's head of newsgathering, he helped build the network of overseas bureaux and foreign correspondents it is my privilege to lead.

He suggests that economic pressures and digital technology are undermining the role of the foreign correspondent - although his argument is more nuanced than the paper's title suggests. The paper should probably be called Is The Traditional White Male Ex-pat Correspondent Working From An Office With A Satellite Link To London At Risk? In that case, the answer would unquestionably be "yes" - but the title exaggerates to makes its point.

I can tweet as well as the next man (@WilliamsJon is my personal account, since you ask). But the idea that Twitter or other social media can replace rather than complement traditional, mainstream reporting is fanciful. Actually, I'd go further and suggest it's an opportunity rather than a threat.

In a world of more "noise" from the blogs and social networks, there's a craving from the mainstream audience for a "trusted guide" to make sense of it all - they want someone to help explain what matters and what doesn't. That's why even among the "networked" followers of Twitter, hundreds of thousands of people subscribe to the BBC's breaking news feed (@BBCBreaking) and thousands more follow the likes of Robert Peston, Rory Cellan-Jones and Laura Kuenssberg.

And just because someone random says - or tweets - something, it doesn't mean it's true. Three weeks ago, the blogosphere and the rest of the net were awash with rumours that Aung San Suu Kyi had been released hours before she was set free. Ironically, it was perhaps the most "traditional" foreign correspondent, John Simpson, who was there to tell the world of her actual release - in the same way as he has been doing for more than 40 years.

Richard is right to suggest that the "traditional" model is changing. I'm proud we have a more diverse reporting team than ever - though we also have more to do. The latest generation of foreign correspondents is as happy behind the camera as in front of it, filming as well as reporting. And broadband access means the spare bedroom can become a TV studio when the big story breaks.

But these aren't threats to the foreign correspondent; they're a chance to renew the relationship between the eye-witness reporter and the audience. The paper concludes:

"[T]he independent witnessing of events has been the core purpose of foreign reporting from its earliest days and will remain so for the future."

Phew! The foreign correspondent may no longer be the only voice in a "networked world", but he or she can be the most trusted voice. In an ever more complex world, they are far from being redundant.

Jon Williams is the BBC World News editor.


  • Comment number 1.

    There is something to be said for someone who has a "feel" for a place or event. electronic social media is generally a point of view of an individual. No context. There is an illusion created in social media that assumes the information is correct and without motivations.

  • Comment number 2.

    Context can come from locals on the ground, via tweets, blogs etc. or even from the likes of Wikileaks (what better than troublemakers to keep vested interests on their toes).
    In the end though [T]he independent witnessing of events is important when it comes from someone who has a perspective that is following the interests of the particular broadcaster's (or newspaper's) audience, Hence a British correspondent on the scene.

  • Comment number 3.

    What we need is new labour and the BBC to work hand in hand with knee jerk policies and TV tie ins just like during the St Blair days.
    I love all the public school toffs who run new labour ! As is so obvious by their public school rethoric, they still think Britain is a huge and important imperial power1 Keep on dictating to the world!!! Like the BBC and its moderators, we all know this is the solution. (and a licence fee increase would come in handy too)

  • Comment number 4.

    Subscribing to or following twitter feeds can be entertaining, but more caution should be applied when it comes to the value of any 'information'.

    As to those of BBC staff, they can range from the truly mind-booglingly dull, such as detailing the awesome 'news' that a person has entered a building, to the oddly revealing, as senior BBC executive Ms. Helen Boaden has recently noticed and sought to caution about. One does tend to find that the more egregious examples are from those who litter their personal bio summary with references and URLs to their employer, but seem quaintly satisfied with disclaimers that views held are not shared.

    As for trust in corresponding, no matter who, with what title, about whatever subject, it really boils down to sharing facts, and leaving the enhancement of narrative or interpretation of events to either the viewer/listener or those whose agendas are known well enough to deal with their degree of partiality.

    Sadly, that ideal is long past.

    But at least there are the Editorial Guidelines to ensure all is kept on an even keel:

  • Comment number 5.

    The media intellectuals have cooked their goose by delivering an unprofessional slanted view of affairs far beyond any reasonable degree. Believing they can masquerade with their patronizing Islamofascist agendas and get away with it.

  • Comment number 6.

    @Jon Williams
    "there's a craving from the mainstream audience for a "trusted guide" to make sense of it all - they want someone to help explain what matters and what doesn't."

    There have been many Global events in recent years, declaring war, and the banking crisis come to mind. The latter was a prime example of of BBC stepping up to the plate, albeit with a spokesman/reporter/editor [Robert Peston] who I'd never heard of trying his best to explain how despite his expertise in city finance, he had never ever mentioned once anywhere, at any time, any concerns he may have about the behaviour of the banks prior to the bubble bursting. That said, he works for the BBC, so people listened and took some comfort from his rather odd [celebrity chef] vocabulary in explaining that we can sort all this out by printing promissory notes, albeit a lot of them.

    But here we are now, the original piece being a defence of foreign correspondents.
    Yet for some reason 'the craving' 'the need to make sense of it all' 'what matters and what doesn't' seems to have been avoided when it comes to WikiLeaks, so what is the point of BBC news anymore, or it's correspondents?.

    Perhaps it's time to step up to the plate again, make a difference and then perhaps prove this paper and it's real sponsors wrong. Or perhaps not.

    Best regards

  • Comment number 7.

    Ah the "Traditional White Male Ex-pat Correspondent Working From An Office With A Satellite Link To London At Risk" ... well quick, somebody had best warn Andrew Harding immediately before he returns from Mogadishu!

    Sambrook's article is interesting - particularly given my own experience with an albeit limited amount of foreign correspondent journalism and photography coverage on specific African news for Czech Republic. I think there is some valid and relevant criticism on the current model. There is sufficient local skill in many of these countries to support locals doing the reporting themselves, bar any language issues so probably worth noting that this applies to English speaking foreign correspondents.

    Jon, I think you are quite right in suggesting that there is no reason that the foreign correspondent can't be the most trusted source. In fact, excluding interviews with Julius Malema in South Africa (in which the BBC correspondent was chucked out of the press conference), foreign journalists in the developing world tend to command greater credibility more often than not.

    Olga (gratefully not redundant yet!)

  • Comment number 8.

    Have to say, accusing a reply that discusses twitter use, and cites a BBC URL, of being 'off topic' given the majority of the author piece, takes some doing, even for the new, 'improved' modding system. Bravo.

  • Comment number 9.

    It's alleged some were false flag recruitments via the likes of the BBC but in actual fact their paychecks were headed MI6 / CIA or for the really poor KGB.........New Technology is perhaps giving better real time, un-written or media conditioning for particular audiences...

  • Comment number 10.

    I am a great believer in the overseas correspondent for two reasons, firstly that the BBC is one of the few that still pays and maintains its own correspondents and is not forced by single minded management of certain news providers to play the story in their own light, and secondly because those that live in the respective countries can see better than us what, if any changes are taking place objectively.

  • Comment number 11.

    Some of the best journalism and anecdotal comments come from our foreign correspondents. My favorite was Alistair Cook in Letter From America. The story that I remember best was when Alistair was stuck indoors because of freezing weather conditions. Not long after that he became ill and sadly died.

  • Comment number 12.

    I think they are very important, and as much as i love the web and new media, I think it's recently become clear that having a professional balanced nuanced detailed view is actually MORE important in this world of fast-moving tweets and blogs.

    There have been quite a few recently blog-blown-up stories that have turned out to be false. Others based on deeply biased and partizan reporting. There's also the "social networks effect" which actually means people are getting a much NARROWER view of news from only their circle.

    In such a world, it's hard for the traditional news networks to compete in terms of speed - but what they can offer is detail, context, filtering and fact checking, as well as a wider view on stories that wouldn't normally be covered. (From Our Correspondent is one of the most interesting parts of the bbc web site, as it's stuff I HAVEN'T already seen everywhere - I actually learn things!).

    I just hope that the expense of foreign correspondents won't lead to their demise. (particularly in the US, which already has a hugely insular news media view, and definitely doesn't need it to become more-so. )

    But i do agree that it's also an opportunity. Including local (vetted high quality) bloggers in the bbc's out put would give a nice extra viewpoint).

    PS/ Why is the BBC not supporting wikileaks and hosting all their material? Surely The Guardian is doing just that - yet they don't seem to be being hounded and having all their credit card and hosting removed.

  • Comment number 13.

    "there's a craving from the mainstream audience for a "trusted guide" to make sense of it all - they want someone to help explain what matters and what doesn't."

    Having a situation where an individual (or line manager) decides what is and is not newsworthy is a weakness in the mainstream media, not a strength. The problem becomes particularly apparent when you consider that unlike the diverse viewpoints of the masses, journalists undergo a natural filtering process throughout their careers. Those too critical of governments or corporations never make it to the lofty heights of the BBC 9 o'clock News.

    For example, the kind of journalist who might describe US Troops in Fallujah as being "brutal" is just not BBC material. (note that journalists describing Russian troops as brutal certainly are BBC material. See "Chechnya's endless war"

    Here is a case in point of the BBC deciding what is and what isn't important. During operation cast lead (the Israeli assault on Gaza), pictures clearly showing white phosphorus use emerged early on in the conflict. The weapon, with its billowing smoky trails is quite unmistakable. It's use in civilian areas is highly controversial (if not illegal) and yet the BBC did not think it important to draw our attention to the matter for a whole week (despite numerous emails from many concerned people). Similarly the BBC refused to write about alleged white phosphorus use by the US in Fallujah until many months after the event. In the case of Fallujah the BBC said there wasn't enough evidence, despite numerous eyewitness accounts (the US was later forced to admit using WP in Fallujah)

    Is it any wonder then that big stories like the diplomatic cables were sent to WikiLeaks rather than the BBC? Although wikileaks has worked with the media, it is in many ways a damning indictment of the mainstream media. One wonders what would have happened if the diplomatic cables had actually been sent to the BBC rather than wikileaks. I suspect they would never have seen the light of day.

  • Comment number 14.

    For Sensiblegrannie to bring Alistair Cook into things with his 'Letters from America', with respect, is bringing in a different age. Today is a whole new kettle of fish. The left today are so brazen and cross threaded, Alistair Cook looks like a saint in comparison.

  • Comment number 15.

    '13. At 05:15am on 10 Dec 2010, Steve wrote:
    "there's a craving from the mainstream audience for a "trusted guide" to make sense of it all - they want someone to help explain what matters and what doesn't."

    Having a situation where an individual (or line manager) decides what is and is not newsworthy is a weakness in the mainstream media, not a strength.'

    On this, I can do no more but agree.

    Unlike some evidently more uniquely endowed to know the minds of the majority of others, and what 'we' want, for this audience of one the notion that I crave a guide of any self-proclaimed ability (especially one from an entity that has at its moral pinnacle a laughing stock it had to call 'The Trust' to at least see the word in print) in the ridiculous manner portrayed - 'make sense of', 'explain what matters and what doesn't' - is risible.

    As it was when I was told that the factual sharing of the news required the additional personal skills of corporate value embracing employees to 'enhance the narrative' or 'interpret events'.

    To be clear... 'I' don't crave, or 'want' what this person says I do. Yet still I am obliged to pay for them to have such notions, broadcast them and put the perceived validation of enforced compliance into ever-greater effect.

  • Comment number 16.

    @Jon Williams

    I've posted my little piece a bit earlier, but am a little perplexed that the smarter [including your staff] that are much more eloquent than me, might have been given at least an acknowledgement. Perhaps this mini blog is a 'top down chore' and you are busy with greater things?

    But no matter, I can help with your original concern.

    Who are Reuters?
    Reuters are a PLC.

    Oxford University are funded by business.

    Putting these two together might lead to the nub of this article, perhaps it's something to do with pulling the BBC down. Only a suggestion mind.


  • Comment number 17.


  • Comment number 18.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 19.

    Phew! I'm not so sure… 'bottom up' approach already proved to be remarkably successful and it has been deployed in somewhat unexpected ways, such as pointing to the source via interlinks which in turn provides fine genesis of the news in development.

    If outside news source would be interested in estimate of political situation in UK the chance is that it will get more valuable assessment from deeply cored and well chosen local correspondent than from a 'foreigner'. That may not be true for some other geographical locations though…

    Its interesting read, but this entry used too much focus on social media, these are some grand developments, we have world wide news service… it is not the social media that constitutes the 'threat to old ways of reporting', it is ever-growing news media network with plenty of room at the bottom.

    The fact is, carefully chosen local sources can surpass the speed and accuracy of Reuters Media Express and similar world services and that raises many questions… prudent use of (re)sources is just one of them.

    imo, as ever.


BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.