The British Broadcasting Corporation’s controller of global news, Richard Porter, was in South Africa recently. Glenda Nevill caught up with him to find out more about where the delivery of news is going in Africa.
The BBC has been servicing the world with news for longer than almost any other media organisation. It has been in Africa for 80 years and has, as its controller of global news, Richard Porter, says, “found its place in a modern setting and changing world”.
Porter recently addressed the Africa Cast Conference in Cape Town. Africa, he says, has “one of the most exciting media markets in the world right now”. It’s a market where smartphones and the mobile market are challenging news organisations to adapt, or die. It’s a market that is huge, with diverse voices and diverse needs. It’s a “noisy” market with many sources of news and content.
How, then, does the BBC raise its voice above the rest? It comes down to values, Porter says. “Trust, independence, accuracy, fairness, impartiality and honesty are the values we stand for. Trust is hard earned and defended, and it’s something easily shattered if not protected,” he says. “You build trust through being open. The way people use BBC content is a measure of how much they trust us. We’re quoted as a good source.”
It’s a tricky balance in a world where social media platforms and citizen journalism can help drive the news. “We use the same system of checks and balances and high standards as we do for any media platform,” Porter says. “The speed of delivery has changed, so we have to rely on the knowledge and experience of the people we employ, and the people on the ground.”
He cites the example of the death of Muammar Gaddafi and the cellphone footage of his last minutes that was flighted around the world via 24-hour news channels. “We were fortunate that we had a correspondent in Misrata, close by, and that was an advantage.
“It took time to verify the footage, to be sure it was him. We didn’t see it as a race, about winning, about being first to show it. We took a more cautious approach and in the end, chose not to show everything.”
It seems viewers appreciated the approach. In a poll on the Global Minds Forum, “an online community of BBC viewers, listeners and website visitors brought together to provide global feedback on BBC content”, 75% of those polled thought the BBC’s use was “about right”, Porter says. On the day Gaddafi was killed, the daily users were up by 42%. Global Minds currently has over 30 000 people signed up around the world who give feedback on BBC radio, online and television news.
Nevertheless, the global appetite for news on demand, 24/7, has challenged the way in which the BBC delivers news. Values, as Porter says, have to be backed up by “the resources, skills and technology to meet the needs of modern audiences”. One such means is the BBC Global Video Hub. “The Hub enables us to use our expertise in TV production to generate cross-platform content in multiple languages. It’s also a perfect way for us to bring stories from Africa to a global audience,” Porter says.
The BBC started broadcasting in Africa in 1932 and has developed “a large newsgathering operation on the ground”.
“In terms of reach, we’ve got a weekly African audience of around 90 million, the majority of whom still access the BBC via radio, followed by TV and then online,” Porter says. Radio plays “an important role in any market irrespective of maturity”.
The BBC has Africa bureaux in Johannesburg, Nairobi and Lagos. “We often use freelance camera crews and are increasingly using independent correspondents. The tighter financial environment means local experts have a bigger role to play, plus they’re authentic voices. So we’re doing more and more training to develop correspondents,” he says.
“Ideas like the global video hub help us to reduce costs whilst enhancing our reporting. They make us more efficient whilst adding a dimension to our news reporting that competitors will struggle to match, and that’s what’s needed in today’s news market,” he says.
But before they dive head first into a project, the BBC does significant research into its audiences. Porter told the Africa Cast conference about a new measurement method called ‘Sysomos’. “The system allows us to track conversations across the social web to better understand what people think about the BBC brand and our output. And, when appropriate, we enter the conversation and engage with specific conversations or debates,” he told the audience.
He believes the BBC’s Facebook and Twitter accounts – both of which have in excess of one million followers each – are becoming a key source of news in Africa.
Porter says mobi is a “big area of focus” and they’re working on an SMS-based service. “The use of smartphones is widespread across the African continent so this is important to us,” he says. “We’ve seen huge growth in the use of content on mobile devices, proportionately greater than anywhere else in the world. As you all know, Africa is the fastest growing market in the world for mobile telephony.
“There’s a large market for this sort of content, although cost and speed of downloading are still a barrier. However, there is still a large volume of sharing between devices, primarily via Bluetooth, and this is something that’s quite particular to the African market,” Porter told Africa Cast.
Porter says the BBC has changed from a “megalithic organisation that talked to people to an organisation that has conversations with people”.
So what is the future for Africa and the BBC? Porter says the BBC is “actively” looking for opportunities to make its news programming available via local partners – whether TV, radio, mobile or online – in key markets within Africa”.
“We also plan to build on the strong advertising client base within Africa for our commercial operations – BBC World News and BBC.com/news,” he says. “The focus for the BBC will always be substance before style, but there’s no reason why we can’t deliver both.”
This story was first published in the April 2012 edition of The Media magazine.