The BBC is a ‘global brand’. Its journalism and other programmes reach people around the world. But what do they think of its coverage, its editorial values and its role in fighting misinformation? Following the BBC World Service Group Director, Jamie Angus’ Talk for Polis, a group of MSc students from LSE’s Media and Communications Department visited the New Broadcasting House office. Hosted by Marie Helly, Assistant Editor, Beyond Fake News, part of the Director’s Team, the students had the opportunity to interact with some senior journalists and also understand the workings of the vast BBC newsroom. Here, the group of students write about their key takeaways from that visit including their personal view of what the BBC means to them.
The tour began with a meeting with senior BBC journalists Dina Newman and Stuart Hughes. Newman, a seasoned producer and a journalist at the World Service since 1996, was roped in to cover the Russia-Ukraine conflict for all BBC outlets in 2014 due to her familiarity with the language and has been an international correspondent and trainer ever since. The Russian version of her television documentary covering the war in Ukraine became widely popular and received over 280,000 hits on YouTube. She said that the BBC’s high reputation globally has been advantageous in getting journalists access into a war zone and convincing people to give interviews.
“Fake news” has always existed. For example, one of Newman’s acquaintances, a social media influencer, ended up spreading the news of Rumi’s ban in Russia, that was originally circulated by some Crimean Muslims in her network. It took some work on Newman’s part to explain the real situation to her. This case of misinformation showed the strengths of having a world-class robust filtering system like the BBC’s newsgathering systems. Social media amplifies disinformation when the audience seeks entertainment in a story and circulates them despite their lack of truth. It is challenging to stop the widespread dissemination of fake news, but the BBC Monitoring Department. There are various systems and platforms that the team at BBC Monitoring uses for fact checking. For example, CrowdTangle is a tool available on Facebook, Instagram and Reddit in which users (journalists) can login to check popular keywords that are being used on the social network. These keywords can serve as a lead to the subjects that gain popularity and by extension can help track fake news. The BBC team also insists on transparency and maintaining the “how, where, who and when” during newsgathering.
Stuart Hughes, a diplomatic producer in the World Affairs Unit with over twenty-five years of experience at the BBC, talked about the changes brought by technology to the ecosystem of journalism. A few years ago, massive satellite dishes had to be carried around, and now everything can be done on the phone allowing journalists to broadcast news efficiently and conveniently. In a world of breaking news, journalism is a race of efficiency and competition across extensive networks. The BBC has a mobile application that enables journalists to do HD broadcasting on location.
When producing foreign news, besides the editorial needs, logistics is essential. That includes getting visas, ensuring that there are journalists readily available in those areas where the news broke, booking airline tickets and much more. Planning is vital because small technical challenges can disrupt production. The development of technology has become advantageous for BBC, making it much easier to rush to another country when there is a disaster that must be reported. On the flip side, journalists are also at risk of reporting any news to satisfy 24-hours news feed. Long working hours, sometimes spanning 18-19 hours, can be the norm.
The team reiterated throughout the visit that the BBC values impartiality and criticality, which build credibility among the audience. However, these values are also difficult to achieve, especially in war zones. Both Russia and Ukraine considered BBC an ally of the other, as noted by Newman, which led people to be less willing to share genuine opinions. Secondly, while China inclines to glorify the advantages of development of Africa, the BBC is under attack both from some Africans and a sceptical worldwide audience. The local audience does not always appreciate reports on Sub-Saharan Africa’s critical issues since bad news becomes news.
The BBC Language centre is where news originates and is broadcasted worldwide to reach an international audience. Aside from having journalists on the same floor of their London newsroom for enhancing better communication, there are also locally-based journalists to give the country perspective. BBC focuses on solutions-based journalism. Giving a well-rounded picture of society and not always publishing negative stories. The audience can influence the development of journalism as journalists react based on the audience’s response.
Take the case of BBC Brasil, for instance. The audience’s preference for in-depth news with an emphasis on quality over quantity encouraged the BBC Brazil team to produce twelve more highly-produced pieces instead of forty news articles per day. Soon they noticed that the subscriber base had increased by four to five times. BBC Brasil also adapted to the emerging news media platforms by creating videos on YouTube and discussing the underlying reasons for current events. While a niche market, BBC Brasil was still able to curate more of an audience by producing more diverse stories. What is more, the BBC also hosts BBC Minute, a bite-sized African news broadcast with a soft touch of entertainment, which targets the young audience to catch up with the latest news.
Life as a journalist is not a bed of roses. Some have made the BBC London office their home following threats to their lives back in their own countries. War reporting takes its toll. For instance, Hughes went through the ordeal of having a foot amputated when he stepped on a landmine while reporting in Iraq in April 2003. His prosthetic leg has famously been a war exhibit in the past. The students left inspired with the idea of BBC as a vehicle to inform, entertain and educate.
Sudeshna Mukherjee: Growing up as a child of the 80s in India, my earliest memory of the BBC was listening to the news on Radio 4, the channel that my grandfather ardently followed and encouraged all family members to listen to, to improve our grasp of English. The news that caught my attention back in the summer of 1991 was the BBC reporting the assassination of the former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in a matter-of-fact manner in contrast to the mass hysteria on television we witnessed later that day. The BBC remained a huge part of my growing up years and it was a dream come true to walk through the hallowed halls of the New Broadcasting House, understanding the nuances of news-gathering and learning about the day to day hardships that each of the journalists have to navigate through during war reporting. What impressed me beyond words was how everyone was so approachable and willing to share their experience and yet had the grace to acknowledge when they went wrong. I paused at the South Asia team’s desk and marvelled at how some of the most critical regional stories would have come from there. It prompted me to read up on the journalists we had met that day. Stuart Hughes’ story of having lived through a foot amputation had the most profound impact and made me realise that life as a journalist while risky must be fulfilling too. It took me back to my past life as an aid worker before I joined LSE and made me revisit my interest in development reporting.
Zarina Amandi: It was my first time visiting the office of the BBC and my initial thought upon seeing the building was centred around the power and influence that I thought resided behind those walls. They decide what we talk about and to an extent how we see the world. Apart from the fact that I was mind-blown by the magnificent newsroom, as an African, I was particularly interested in the BBC’s work on my continent. Therefore, it was exciting to hear some of the ‘makers of the news’ talk about the BBC Africa Eye documentaries, BBC 1 Minute news and the use of advanced technology to report on hard-to-reach areas on the continent. In all our interactions, one thing that stood out for me was the emphasis on professionalism by almost every person we spoke to and the work of BBC Monitoring in helping to track and curtail fake news. I was impressed by these because I believe in self-regulation to an extent and the responsibility of media professionals to be gatekeepers and help to maintain ethical standards. I was only there for a short period, but what I learned would go a long way to help me both academically and professionally.
Pin-Han Wang (Christine): After the BBC visit, I have learned that being a journalist requires flexibility, ever-learning attitude and problem-solving capability. Media is a powerful tool connecting the audience with the world and can also become a destructive weapon in war. Attaining ethics for journalists is challenging but fundamental in a changing media environment. What makes the difference is how journalists make news distinctive by using advanced technology and introducing high-quality news to the audience. Also, trust is easy to lose but difficult to build and maintain. In times of media polarisation, each journalist at BBC is a co-contributor to the culture of trust and ethical reporting. Every individual journalist, therefore, carries the responsibility to pursue high standards.
Tharsa Sakthipakan: The visit to the BBC was remarkable. As a young girl, the BBC was a big part of my growth, and seeing the dedicated journalists behind such an institution was incredible. To tackle misinformation and continue to be impartial, journalists must analyse all angles of news. Fake news has become a primary influence on those who do not have access to media sources, thus proving the job of the BBC to be even more difficult. Misleading content online is tackled effectively, through careful analysis of every frame of a picture, to using investigative technology to deem whether the source is fake or not. Journalists at the BBC are dedicated to providing their audience with unbiased and accurately represented news which scopes across a variety of topics. It was a pleasure to be in the midst of such work.
Ari Abelson: The BBC has always been a part of my household. In Canada, BBC is seen as a reliable and objective source of news. Although, these very attributes have led to its continued criticism as of late. Going to the BBC and learning from the reporters who tackle some of the most complicated questions of balance between objectivity and truth was a unique experience. Coming out of this visit I am left with many questions, questions the BBC teams make their daily mission to try and tackle. How do you report on protracted conflicts and keep people engaged without normalizing or glorifying the violence? How do news organizations compete with the immense technological resources of companies that circulate disinformation? How does the BBC stay objective in a continuously polarizing world? Meeting the teams reassured me that the BBC is committed to the complicated process of creating impactful news, and I am grateful I was able to interact with the institution.
 The 60-second broadcast is aimed at digitally connected audiences and promises an alternative news source from the BBC World Service: https://www.bbc.co.uk/mediacentre/latestnews/2015/bbc-minute