Peter Horrocks: Delivering International News – How the BBC has increased market reach in the Middle East Region

Date: 30.09.2012     Last updated: 18.03.2014 at 17.58
Peter Horrocks' speech at the Saudi Broadcasting Forum in Riyadh on 29 September, 2012.

I’m delighted to be here with you at the 2nd Annual Saudi Broadcasting Forum in Riyadh.

Just a few weeks ago, in London, 19 year-old Sarah Attar lined up on the blocks for an 800m race and by doing so stepped into history. She may have crossed the line 45 seconds behind the winner but she was cheered all the way by the fantastic crowd at the Olympic stadium, who were celebrating both her participation and the moment in history that Sarah represented, by becoming the first female track athlete to represent Saudi Arabia at the Olympic Games.

Saudi women participating in the games created a positive global reaction. Sarah Attar is currently on the shortlist for a social media driven vote for Image of the Year at the Peace and Sport Awards to be held in November in Monaco. This inclusion of a female athlete from Saudi Arabia is a sign of the way that all societies are increasingly influenced by global public opinion, often fuelled through campaigns and pressure via social media.

This morning I’ll be speaking to you about how social media is driving great change, and how we at the BBC are responding to this technological revolution and using it to drive greater audiences to our services. So far it appears to be working – BBC Arabic for instance commands a 33 million audience weekly, across radio, online and television, a significant increase in the past 18 months from 21m. How did we do that?

To answer that I am going to touch on subjects different from those we have heard about this morning. We have heard about technology and regulation. Instead I am going to talk about what matters for audiences - quality, independence and human freedom.

We now live in a world where things are no longer the same and it’s a change that has come to stay; change in the media, in politics, in economics and within populations.

Here in the Middle East region, and around the world, there has been a reordering of power. The rising new economic powers in Africa, Asia and Latin America are taking over roles once played by Europe and North America. Age-old structures no longer predict how people will behave, what will interest them or not. And in the media, we have seen that happen with technology, social media and citizen journalists changing how journalism is practised, how news is gathered and how people consume their information. We are all forced to listen to our audiences more than ever before.

The international news media are going through a revolution that puts the audience in charge. It is a convulsion that is testing every news organisation. With the internet, social interactivity and globalisation, news brands are in a battle for attention and trust.

Here in the Middle East we have seen, with the so-called Arab Spring protests in the past year and a half, that there is an educated, well-connected young population who increasingly want a say in how they live their lives. Social media is hugely popular. Recent research by the Dubai School of Government in its Arab Social Media Report, showed that the Arab region has close to 2.1 million active Twitter users tweeting on average almost 4,000 tweets a minute. It also showed that Saudis are the most active users of social media in the region. This was confirmed by the Saudi Wamda Centre for Economic Research which in January this year published figures to show that at 38 per cent, Saudis are the biggest users of Twitter among Arab nations, coming higher than Egypt.

What this means for us in the media and for nations around the world is that no one person, or one media, or one point of view is able to control the message anymore.

The Middle East and Gulf region has undergone the greatest changes since the 1950s and there’s more to come. That story of growth, prosperity and change is being chronicled. This region is wealthy, international and draws people from around the world. In a globalised environment, what the world thinks of this region will define the policies of both friends and enemies alike and why it is so important for this region to be reported openly and fairly to the wider world.

The Arab revolutions were assisted by social media and it made internet stars of a select few and drove up audiences to organisation like the BBC and Al Jazeera. The stories they revealed, the causes they supported, the information they uncovered became headline news around the world. Social media is driving political and societal change.

For instance, here in Saudi Arabia last year a group of Saudi women used Twitter and social media to mobilize and promote the right of women to drive under the hashtag #women2drive. Though the ban has not been lifted, change happened in other areas such as women getting the right to vote in local elections for the first time.

The power of social media was also evident in when in June 2009, a young Iranian woman Neda Agha Soltan was shot dead during post-election protests in Tehran. The incident was captured on mobile phone, posted on YouTube and shown around the world. And rallied people in solidarity with the protestors.

In June 2010, the death of Khalid Sai'd at the hands of Egyptian police prompted Google executive Wael Ghonim to start a Facebook page called "We are all Khalid Sai'd" which attracted hundreds of thousands of followers and became one of the catalysts for the January 2011 protests that toppled President Hosni Mubarak

And the list goes on.

So how have we at the BBC responded to the changes that I have outlined? The BBC’s Arabic Service is one that commands huge respect in the Middle East and Gulf region, based on its radio service’s great history of more than 70 years.

We have strived to maintain our place by combining our long-lasting values with a readiness to modernise. This includes incorporating the best that social media and new media platforms offer with our traditional journalistic principles founded on an absolute commitment to independence, accuracy and impartiality.

Our programming such as World Have Your Say which every day provides global audiences with a chance to question the powerful, is a reflection of one of our fundamental principles – that for the BBC, the audiences are at the heart of what we do – a key value for the BBC.

Despite our long history of serving audiences, we knew that we needed to find new ways of making people continue to engage with a broadcaster they trusted.

I’d like to share two examples with you.

A few months ago we conducted an undercover investigation working with a citizen journalist who had raised concerns about the state of care in homes for children with disability in Jordan. When we announced that we had found cases of abuse at these facilities, even before the programme aired, King Abdullah II of Jordan paid a surprise visit to several of the homes. He also directed his Prime Minister to investigate the claims exposed by the BBC programme. The PM reported back after two weeks confirming all the allegations that we made in the programme. Several carers implicated in abuse have subsequently been arrested and some care homes have been closed. This film and story made waves in the region via social media, especially because some of the homes were used by parents from neighbouring countries. It also prompted a wider discussion and about care and treatment of disabled children in the Middle East.

The other example comes from Egypt. Earlier this month, BBC Arabic investigated allegations that Britain had allowed key members of former President Mubarak’s government to retain millions of pounds of suspected property and business assets in the UK, potentially violating a globally agreed set of sanctions. Soon after this report came out, the UK Foreign Secretary met Egyptian President Morsi and offered the assistance of an investigator to track and retrieve the assets in question. Only this week, British PM David Cameron reiterated that same commitment in his address to the UN General Assembly, when he pledged to do more on recovering assets.

This story also illustrates the vital independence that the BBC demonstrates from the UK government that, currently, provides the funding for the BBC World Service. Our investigation was undoubtedly awkward for the UK Foreign Office, but in Britain there is an unshakeable belief in the importance of an independent BBC and the commitment to values of impartiality and fairness that the BBC represents around the world. Even when it might be uncomfortable for the UK, we believe that in this way the BBC shows the Best of Britain.

What these two examples also illustrate is that the BBC does not see social media as separate from what we do as journalists. Social media fuels and impacts on our journalism. This means that organisations like the BBC, with 80 years of international broadcasting experience and hundreds of correspondents across the globe, need to take seriously the competition that comes from just one independent journalist in the middle of a huge story, holding a mobile phone that gives immediate access to a potential global audience.

The increase in access to mobiles and social media platforms means that audiences can share their stories, reflect on them and ask questions about the world around them more readily than ever before. It means that as media operators we have to be prepared to engage our audiences in the debates they want, not just the ones that we have set for them. It’s more unpredictable what response you will get. It could succeed, fail or be hijacked to make a mockery of your organisation.

A recent example was the twitter hashtag set by Newsweek magazine to go with their cover article in the aftermath of the anti-muslim film protests. The hashtag “#muslimrage” was instead taken over by people around the world who then challenged the sentiments implied by the cover story. It means that global or western news organisations can be challenged as never before. We welcome that.

We know that the unprecedented flow of information that social media represents holds some dangers. You don’t need to go far to find distasteful language on social media that is used to insult, abuse, harass or denigrate. As a media organisation, you must set the terms of engagement on your audience's use of social media so it is clear to all. At the BBC we offer a platform for robust but respectful discourse and our audiences are made aware of that when they take part in discussions or forums. We believe there is a role in providing high quality content for social media, to help raise standards in this environment.

Unless a country wants to cut itself off from the world entirely and if it wants to do business globally, it needs to use the Internet and that means allowing its citizens access to social media. The question is what quality of information they have access to. The BBC's role used to be primarily about meeting a lack of access to information. Now our role is more about meeting the lack of quality information - that is independent, accurate and trustworthy information.

At the BBC we treat social media sources the same way we treat our more conventional sources of information and images. We are just as rigorous in verifying claims, seeking corroboration and ensuring there is a right of reply and there is balance in our coverage and go to great lengths to ensure that it is accurate.

While we have seen the mobilising force of social media and the stories it has generated, we are also aware of the risks that social media can represent to journalistic accuracy. In Syria for instance, where access to journalists is heavily restricted, sometimes the only way to get any images of the conflict has come through videos posted on social media. And we have been uncovered a number of examples where footage has been doctored for propaganda purposes. Other channels have been duped into broadcasting these images.

The consequence of the BBC successfully blending traditional journalsistic values with modern means of gathering and delivering news has been a noticeable increase in respect from our audiences in this region. Among BBC Arabic TV audiences, trust in us is up from 67 per cent in 2008 to 90 per cent in 2011. This value of trust is fundamental to our relationship with our audiences and we work hard to remain the most trusted broadcaster in the world. This is important as more countries are launching international broadcasting operations, such as China and Russia.

The BBC welcomes this competition, which will benefit audiences and give more options to viewers. But I believe these rivals will only succeed if they can learn how to be trusted – through genuinely independent and accurate information, not driven by the agendas of proprietors or governments. There is little point in spending millions, or indeed billions, of dollars on a service if few believe in it.

For the BBC audience trust comes from four areas:

  • Impartiality and independence - the BBC’s Arab Spring coverage held both the rebels and regimes to account
  • Accuracy and depth – we offer analysis, business and cultural content on our schedules
  • Transparency - if we get something wrong, we hold our hands up and apologise
  • Accessibility - we always aim to reflect the needs of our audiences

One of the biggest changes that we have to deal with in media is the effect that technology has enabled access and changed how content is consumed. Our investment in new platforms has led to an increase in our global audience figures - now at 239 million around the world, up from 225 million last year. This increase has been driven largely by our coverage of the Arab spring. And, despite facing a campaign of intimidation and censorship by the Iranian authorities, BBC Persian TV has doubled its reach in Iran to 6 million.

Gone are the days when audiences were content to only listen and watch or read what we produced for them. What it means is that the practice of trying to control the message by keeping foreign broadcasters out or censored, or relying on the reach of a powerful state broadcaster is redundant.

US President Barack Obama made the same point at the opening of the UN General Assembly in New York this week when talking about the controversial anti-Islam film made in the USA which has sparked wide-spread protests. He said, “In 2012, at a time when anyone with a cell phone can spread offensive views around the world with the click of a button, the notion that we can control the flow of information is obsolete. The question, then, is how we respond. And on this we must agree: there is no speech that justifies mindless violence. The strongest weapon against hateful speech," says Obama "is not repression. It's more speech."

But limits on speech persist. The BBC for instance is currently unable to re-broadcast locally here in Saudi Arabia, unlike in Libya and the UAE for example where we are on air locally. We know we have a large audience here in Saudi Arabia from direct international transmission. We currently reach, across languages and platforms, 3.3 million adults weekly. It’s one of our strongest television markets.

I want to assure you that there is nothing to fear by opening up the airwaves and allowing foreign broadcasters to participate in the flow and sharing of information. Nor should there be anything to fear from allowing BBC reporters to report from this country on a more regular basis. It is vital for all countries that they are properly understood and the BBC’s reporting from any country will always be conducted accurately and fairly. We have a constructive dialogue with the Saudi authorities about the possibility of reporting from and broadcasting to this country, and I look forward to continuing that discussion. And as well as our relationship with governments in the region, the BBC values its many editorial, distribution and technical partnerships in this region. I look forward to discussions with many of those current and future partners over the next two days.

What should countries fear more - foreign organisations with reputations for editorial integrity and transparency or unaccountable anonymous voices swirling around the internet? The wider message for all of us is - don’t fear the internet and social media - embrace it. Yes, it means increased competition for attention. Yes, it means rethinking how we work and evolve. Yes it means you’re no longer in total control. But we all need to accept that the audience, the public, is now in charge.

I must also raise here the unprecedented threat to independent news from around the world that we are experiencing. Journalists are facing threats to their lives, censorship through intimidation or are faced with terrorism charges in their search for the truth.

It is vital that all authorities protect the rights of journalists to report freely and investigate those who seek to curtail journalistic freedom, so that these threats diminish. Satellite interference and other forms of ‘blocking’ or ‘jamming’ prevent audiences from accessing news and information. This jamming has affected a number of countries in this region, as well as global news organisations such as the BBC. Our TV service to Iran has been regularly jammed. Such interference with the free flow of information is outrageous. Those doing it should stop and, if they don't, the international community should take decisive action to make them stop.

Next year, BBC Arabic celebrates its 75th anniversary. We remain proud of this long, enduring engagement we have had with Arabic-speaking audiences across the globe, and we have a commitment to continue.

The BBC’s international role has been key since it was founded. For the past 80 years the motto “Nation shall Speak peace unto Nation” has guided our role in creating a community of people around the world who want to have a debate that allows ideas and thoughts to be shared, but above all for us to never stop asking for answers. The BBC will endeavour to offer a place for that to keep happening for years to come.

Thank you