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BBC World News' Liz Gibbons on the importance of a free and impartial media

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NEW DELHI: Audiences the world over count on BBC News to provide an accurate account of global events. Its illustrious legacy has been bolstered by a multitude of journalists reporting from almost every nook and corner of the world. On 11 March 1991, it launched its global English news channel- BBC World News with a half-hour news bulletin. Within months, it expanded operations in Asia and became a 24 hour news channel. Every day, for the last 30 years, the channel has attempted to bring compelling stories from different countries – stories that got the world talking. During the pandemic, the BBC saw an overall higher growth in APAC than the global average with a 48 per cent increase in unique visitors in 2020. Its Indian audience rose to 60 million people per week, according to the Global Audience Measure 2020.

On its 30th anniversary, Indiantelevision.com spoke to BBC World News, head of news, Liz Gibbons about the transformation that the English news channel has undergone over three decades, the challenges it faced during the pandemic, and how it is adapting to the digital demands of the 21st century.

Edited excerpts:

On the transformation that its newsroom underwent since it started operations in 1991.

The way we gathered global news 30 years ago was completely different. We were reliant on satellite technology, but the news gathering has completely revolutionised now. The cameras that we use are much lighter and easier to mount. There is mobile phone technology and Wi-Fi to enable us to file a story from almost anywhere in the world. We use AR/VR technologies to explain some of the complicated stories. It was something we could not do before. We are much nimbler than we ever were. We are using the content generated by our audience much more. When a big story breaks, it is not the BBC journalist who is first on the ground. The first material that we play out on TV is now of somebody who has witnessed the story and broke the story to us. Of course, we first verify and ensure that it is correct. So, it is a completely different landscape. Except for the values and the way we approach journalism, I think everything else has pretty much changed.

On digital news and the stiff competition with emerging digital news platforms.

BBC News is adapting extremely well. We have got the BBC.com news website which has got 151 million users a week globally, 53 per cent up on last year. BBC News is reaching over 400 million people a week globally, which is also higher than last year. Our digital offering is at the front and center of what we do, both in the UK and globally. Our audience has also been stable and increased in the past year. The big events such as the pandemic which affected us all in different ways have brought those audiences to us in record numbers.

On how the channel pivoted during the pandemic.

The big change for us was the way we get our guests on air. People have adapted to the idea, that they can just do interviews from wherever they are and that means we can get a huge and broader range of guests than we could before. We also sent fewer journalists from the UK and other parts of the world to cover the US elections, which was one of the biggest stories last year. We had to find different ways to cover it. We also had to restructure the workflows and get a lot of people out of the building very quickly. Many did not have the technology to contribute from home. Lot of people had to self-isolate. The world news channels were brought together more closely than before. We had presenters presenting the programmes from their homes. It was extraordinary.

On combating the demon of fake news.

Fake news is one of our biggest challenges. It only goes on to illustrate how important it is to have a news service that is impartial and free from political or commercial influence. We have got a reality check team, whose job is to look at the claims which are being made by politicians or within the social media space and to challenge them with facts. We have also got a programme that we run every day at BBC World News called Outside Source, which plays a similar role. It looks at the way stories have been reported around the world, their social media impacts, and draws conclusions based on facts.

On the demands of search engines, and issue of clickbait headlines, and meta tags.

It is very important to understand your audience in the digital world. You can instantaneously see how many people have clicked on a story and you can get a sense of where they are in the world. This is something helpful only to a degree. You have to guard yourself against the idea of framing a story in a certain way that may be misleading, just so that more people will read it. These are the kinds of challenges we face all the time. We need to make a balance between the two.

On the government criticism faced by public broadcasters for coverage of sensitive issues in countries and the latest ban in China.

The role of a free and impartial news channel that reports news without fear or favour has never been more important. It is a fundamental part of what we do and what we stand for as journalists and as an organisation. There are multiple examples all over the world on why we need to do this. We have had instances of our journalists being intimidated in various parts of the world and that is absolutely unacceptable. But, we continue to report news in a free and fair manner. It is at the heart of our mission.

On the impact of budget cuts and any change in the universal funding model.

At the moment, BBC World News is commercially funded by distribution and advertising. But, we are always looking at different ways to innovate and open to all kinds of potential options. The director-general has made it clear that maximising our commercial funding is incredibly important. There is also a debate going on in the UK around the future of license fees (which every household with a TV set must pay). It funds the public service arm of what we do, including a lot of our international services. That debate is likely to continue. But, I feel confident about the future, even though there are pressures on streams of funding for almost all major media organisations.

On which way the world will go - text news vs video news online.

Perhaps, there was an assumption that we were going in a specific direction. In the future, we have to consider the digital output of most of the material we generate. But it is interesting, that linear TV channels are alive and kicking and that people are buying big-screen TVs all around the world. That is a trend and people are obviously watching the time shift. But they are also watching global news channels. It will be a mixed economy for some time to come.

On the Indian audience and any changes in programming planned for 2021.

Our audience in India is stable and going up. We are seen as the number one international media brand in India which is fantastic. We do have a lot of programmes that are made for Indian audiences that will continue. We had the Indian sportswomen of the year outcome. I think it will continue to be an important part of what we do and how we serve our Indian audiences. Thank you to people in India and we hope they remain our audience for the next 30 years too.

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