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In early July, the Nigerian parliament passed a law cracking down on university tutors demanding sexual favours for grades – a direct response to BBC Africa Eye’s investigation last year which caused shockwaves across West Africa.
This week, Larry Madowo reported from a coronavirus ward in Texas in an exclusive report shown on BBC News at 10. Last month, Joice Etutu, a World Service reporter, secured an exclusive interview with the widower of Belly Mujinga, a rail worker who died from coronavirus after a spitting attack at Victoria station. Etutu was able to secure the interview because as a Congolese journalist she speaks Lingala and French, enabling her to win the trust of Belly’s family who also come from the DRC.
The BBC's global reach has increased by a massive 11% in 2020 to 468 million people a week. BBC News (including the World Service and World News) accounts for 438m of the total with an annual increase of 13% – an all-time record.
Reflecting on the figures, BBC Director General Tony Hall said ‘our international news services rank first for trust and reliability and the World Service remains a beacon of democratic values’, adding that the BBC’s strong brand, synonymous with quality and accuracy worldwide, would help UK trade which has never been more important. Referring to ‘Global Britain’, he said success would be achieved by ‘drawing on all our considerable international assets’, and ‘unleashing the full global potential of the BBC’.
Government Investment Vindicated
The government has long recognised the BBC’s vital role in helping to enhance the UK’s reputation and influence around the world. This is why it agreed to make the largest-ever increase in funding for the World Service in 2015. That funding of £86 million a year has allowed us to complete the World Service’s biggest expansion since the Second World War.
The past few months have proved just how wise that investment continues to be and how traditional journalism can counter ‘fake news’. Two forces in particular have brought this home in no uncertain terms.
First, the massive ‘infodemic’ of online misinformation that has grown during the coronavirus crisis. The problem is so severe that, even if a safe and effective vaccine is found, global health leaders warn that the drowning out of reliable, authoritative guidance could dramatically hinder take-up. In late March, more people around the world turned to the BBC for reliable information about coronavirus than any other international media provider and there was a huge surge in visits to the World Service’s 42 language websites to find essential information, fact-checking pieces and how-to guides on prevention.
Second, the growing use of disinformation as a tool for democratic disruption. Recent reports into Russia’s activity in the UK are a timely reminder of what is at stake. For the state-backed actors of Russia and China, the provision of news is first and foremost an extension of state influence. Last year, RT was fined for serious and repeated breaches of UK impartiality rules. China’s English-language news network, CGTN, could be banned from the UK for similar breaches. Chinese and Russian state funded services with no commitment to impartiality are building large audiences across Africa, Asia and beyond. BBC research shows that audiences are starting to rate China’s CGTN and Russia’s RT highly in Nigeria and India. The CGTN website has also seen sharp growth during the coronavirus crisis.
We sometimes hear that there is no difference between the UK spending public money on the BBC and other countries doing the same – it is all just essentially a way to promote the interests of their governments. But there is a huge difference. The BBC is an independent public service broadcaster and has built a reputation for impartiality for close to 100 years. Ask yourself when you have seen strong criticism of the governments and leaders of China and Russia on state broadcasters like CGTN or RT. You certainly see critical reporting of UK policy on the BBC – just ask a government minister. And that is the point. We host fierce critics of our own and other Western governments as well as their supporters and this is essential to the democratic process.
New Platforms, New Content
New digital audiences have been key to the BBC’s success, helping us to adapt and serve our audiences on the platforms they prefer to use. BBC News digital audiences have nearly doubled since the start of the funding boost four years ago (from 80 million people in 2016 to 151 million this year). In addition, new content has attracted new audiences. BBC Africa Eye has quickly become the ‘Panorama of Africa’ with high-impact journalism that has broken new ground in open source investigations. Sport Africa, which carries extensive coverage of the English Premier League, and What's New, a programme for young African audiences, have also performed particularly well.
The BBC World News channel also made significant gains reaching an audience of 112 million and an increase in the Americas of an astonishing 50%. This follows the publication last month of a Reuters Institute report that showed BBC News is the most trusted news brand in the US with BBC News ahead of all major US news brands.
Audiences for BBC World Service languages are growing – up by 13% to 292 million with a big uptick in digital engagement among audiences aged 15–24, who now make up a third of the total. BBC News Hindi is now the second most popular service with 25 million, behind Arabic with 42 million (+67%). BBC Chinese saw an increase of 141%, Russian is up 32% and BBC Mundo up 40%. Other big percentage increases include Serbian (+327%), Yoruba (+166%) and Afaan Oromoo (+143%). BBC World Service English audiences rose by 8% to 97 million. The Global News Podcast remains the BBC's most popular with audiences approaching 1 million a week. Italy contributed 1.4 million new listeners on DAB radio. While new services are obviously starting from a low base, the numbers show that if we make it possible for people to access the BBC, they will.
This is true on global platforms like Youtube with a 129% increase to 47 million people a week accessing BBC content, overtaking Facebook with a 31% increase to 43 million. Twitter reach has doubled to 6 million and Instagram also reaches 6 million people weekly.
Plans for the Future
The UK government’s Comprehensive Spending Review, carried out in parallel with the Integrated Review, will determine how much direct investment will go into the World Service. We have an ambitious plan to more than double our audience to one billion in the next 10 years, to complete the digital transformation of our services and to use the enormous trust audiences have in us to secure wider benefits for UK taxpayers in supporting perceptions of the UK around the world.
The investments made so far have demonstrated without doubt they deliver tangible returns, but this is not a time to be complacent. If the BBC does not step up, others will. We are fortunate to already have a globally recognised and respected organisation to build on – and we must.
We are consulting closely with the government on how further investment could realise our plans and help strengthen the UK’s democratic influence worldwide. We need to seize this moment. Get it right and we have a chance to send out a clear signal about the UK’s place in the world at a crucial time. By acting now, we can help ensure that the UK’s voice and values will continue to resonate powerfully around the globe in the next decade and beyond.
The Global Audience Measure is an annual update of how many people are consuming the BBC weekly for all services in all countries across all platforms (television, radio, website and social media). Key to this is de-duplication i.e. ensuring that a person who consumes multiple BBC services or platforms or on multiple devices is not counted many times in the top level totals, which means those totals are often not the sums of their constituent parts.
Jamie Angus is Director, BBC World Service Group.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
BANNER IMAGE: Courtesy of Dave Lonsdale