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How BBC’s Focus deepens understanding of Africa

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Bilkisu Labaran


Bilkisu Labaran is the Editor, BBC Africa News and Current Affairs. A highly accomplished multimedia journalist, she has edited, produced and presented high profile programmes across tv, radio and online. Bilkisu played a vital role in the creation of BBC Pidgin. She spoke with GREGORY AUSTIN NWAKUNOR on BBC Focus on Africa’s 60th anniversary, challenges and future of media in Africa.

After 60 years of breaking the news and broadcasting landmark stories about Africa… What will you say the story of BBC’s Focus on Africa is, on the continent? Success? Disappointing? What actually is the story?
I think Focus on Africa has been a big success. We use the word flagship programme, because it is really a flagship programme that has paved the way for so many things across the continent and for the BBC. It continues to lead from the front. It has set trends and covered major events across the continent. It has been really good to work on the video, where we captured the main events of the past decades, the 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s, the 2000s, the 2010s, and now, the 2020. Just going back over all that material has been really good, as a reminder to all of us about the journey the programme has been on, and how much we’ve achieved over the past 60 years.

So what led to the programme’s conception and birth?
It started, initially, in 1960, as you know, when about 17 African countries became independent, including Nigeria, as well, and as these countries were becoming independent, because as many of them were former British colonies, there was a need for a programme that spoke to Africa, and was specific to Africa, because the media industries in many of these countries were only just beginning. If we go back, and not just Focus, initially, the service for African languages started during the Second World War, languages like the Hausa Service, it was felt that there was a need for accurate information at that time and around the war, humanitarian effort and things like that. So, that was how languages like the Hausa Service came to be, and as I said, as countries were becoming independent from the 1960s, it was when the view was taken on the need for English programmes to continue to serve many of those countries.

What could have led to that decision to start with staff in London? Was it that the capacity was not there on the part of Africans?
No. Africans are very capable, as you and I know very well that we are. It was just something that started from the beginning with the idea; you have one or two producers working on it with the aim and strategic plan to grow it, and to develop capacity within different countries across the continent. One thing that we are really proud of is, it’s network of correspondents, both staff correspondents, as well as freelancers, all across the continent. Initially, the programme didn’t start specifically as Focus on Africa; it started as a programme for Africa, and then, in 1960, it became Focus on Africa that was broadcast three times a week. You could see that from the beginning, we were already beginning to grow and recruit. We were beginning to expand and train more people.

We’ve continued to do that through the years, supporting colleagues throughout Africa, training journalists. One of the other things that we do, in the Africa-English department, which is the mother department of Focus on Africa, you might know that we run the Komla Dumor award. It’s a specific award, where, through a competitive process, we identify young African journalists with great potential and we take them under our wings and train them for three months. We bring them to London, where they work in our newsroom, alongside very experienced colleagues from all over the continent, learning and sharing their own experiences from the continent and exchanging ideas. So, we are very big on developing journalism in Africa and we have always been, not just from the beginning, but carrying on right through the decades.

What has been the most challenging moment of these 60 years?
I’ve worked on the programme, or in the department, for the past, on and off, 28 years, so, I can say I’ve worked there for almost half of those 60 years, and within this period, we’ve been on the journey from the 60s, when countries were becoming independent, we were on the journey in the 70s, when many of those economies were becoming stronger, Nigeria’s oil money was beginning to make an impact, we had FESTAC ’77, construction, development of the education, post-colonial education in many countries and so on.

We’ve been on various journeys with the continent, covering all the major development and also through the difficult times; the war in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Congo, Angola, Mozambique and we’ve continued to cover these issues, apartheid in South Africa, and of course, ultimately, the release of Nelson Mandela in 1994. We’ve been with the continent, with our audiences in the continent, on every major development.

It continues to be a challenge in the sense that we have to keep growing with our audiences, and one thing that we know for sure has happened in the last few years is the explosion of mobile phone research and accessing information and audio content, as well as video, of course, through mobile phones, and we’ve had to continue to grow and make ourselves available on those social platforms, on our websites, on digital platforms to make sure that we make it as easy as possible for audiences to continue to reach us. You might also know that just recently, we launched a new podcast, which is called, The Comb, again from the Africa-English department. So, what we are trying to do is diversify our offering to our audience and make it as easy as possible for them to come and find us, whichever platform is most convenient for them.

Talking about that journey, the other thing also is that, remember, in many countries, press freedom was an issue, either press freedom or access to information, for many years. BBC’s Focus on Africa, in particular, has been there all these years with many of our audiences whose main source of information, or only source, actually, I would say, of accurate information, has been the BBC for many years, and so, people would often say to me when I travel to the continent, ‘how is it that if we wanted to hear accurate information about our country or any information at all about our country, we have come to the BBC to get it, because we don’t get it in our countries?’

I’m happy to say that there is continuing improvement across the continent, press freedom is improving and we continue to be there, we continue to do what we do best, which is to bring accurate information and serve our audiences, and now what audiences tell us is that even if they hear it, they still come to us because they come to us for confirmation, they come to us to be sure that what they heard from us is true.

What is the most difficult thing to think about when producing an episode of the programme?
I would say it’s putting ourselves in our audiences’ shoes. The continent is getting younger; many of our listeners are getting younger and the interests are changing, while in the 80s, the lead story will be the war in Angola, or in the 90s, Liberia. We will always lead with things like that, or famine in Ethiopia and so on.

Now, sometimes, our audiences just want to hear about Big Brother Nigeria, for instance, they want to hear about the latest technological advancement or they want to hear about Burna Boy winning an award in Hollywood or something like that, celebrating African achievement and I’m proud to say turning it on its head is not a challenge, it’s not a difficult thing. It’s a challenge to us, to reinvent ourselves in order for us to serve our audiences. So, we’ve had to do a lot of soul searching and think about our editorial offer and how we are serving those audiences and continue to move with them, and continue to bring on the contents that they want us to bring them a much richer content, so, we will always do the news and current affairs. We will always bring the important developments to you. This is what is happening. We also bring news from all around the continent because we have that unique perspective of being able to.

While our audiences can get the news from their national stations, we are the ones that can bring news around of an overview of the continent, we do that as well, and then we also diversify the editorial offers so that we service all the needs of our audience, they want education, explainers, so this has happened, there is an outbreak of the Coronavirus, what does it mean for me? What do I need to do? How does it affect my life? How do I need to change my lifestyle? So, we’ve done a lot of really special content around Coronavirus, either in terms of giving accurate information, many audience come to us and say, ‘I heard that if you’ve had malaria, you can’t catch Coronavirus, because that means you’ve got the immunity in your blood system,’ and we’ve continued to bring factual information to explain and to bring the experts to say that’s actually not correct, that’s not the case. And then to bring that specific African context, because some people say to us, ‘the constant message in the media is constant washing of hands, I don’t even have running tap water, so, what do I do?’ We have to bring the experts who will explain things like that to our audiences with specific African perspectives.

If you had an extra budget, how would you spend it, and which area will the extra budget go to, to making the programme better?
I think resources would always be an issue, that is a fact of life. Resources are always limited. It’s just about how judiciously you use them. Use them smartly, and in the best way possible, where they will have the greatest impact, and I just said we recently launched a podcast. We had to realign resources; we didn’t have an extra budget for it. We just used our budget smartly. We looked at the way we were working, where we could make adjustments. How can we reposition things? How do we reorder priorities? And we’d been lucky, to a certain extent, if you can use that word, in the context of the lockdown, because of the lockdown, so, we’ve not been able to travel, we’ve been able to make a few savings from there, so, we’re reinvesting them into other activities on.

Beyond Focus on Africa, as you know, BBC has been very lucky to get its 2020 funding. You might know from our past history, that I launched Pidgin, Yoruba and Igbo in Nigeria, there in West Africa, so it’s been a really exciting opportunity for us for expansion and so its fantastic to have been able to have those additional languages, and we always work together with the Hausa Service colleagues, Afrique and all of that. So through the various languages and platforms, we are able to serve our audiences.

Looking at the media generally, how impactful, and at the same time, how neutral have the BBC been in terms of development journalism?
The BBC is very neutral. We are very impartial. We don’t have an agenda. We bring you the news and the facts, as much as possible. Once in a while, if we get it wrong, we put our hands up and say we got it wrong.

Once in a while, when somebody calls us to say… for instance, we interviewed an opposition, or a person, who made some claims, and then the government or minister called us back, and possibly say, ‘that was factually incorrect,’ we have no agenda. We would also say you’re welcome to pick your own point of view as well, and we would interview that person.

So, we would always try to stand in the line of impartiality and accuracy that is critical for us. In terms of our contributions to the development of journalism on the continent, this is exactly what we mean, living by example but also it’s really important for the BBC in terms of skills sharing, skills development, partnership, we’re really big with partnership, you would know that we have many partners across the continent, both on TV and radio, who take our content and who work with us.

Sometimes, we co-produce content together, and through that, we share our skills and experience, sometimes, we train them, we bring experienced journalists to train them in a particular area or the other, sometimes, we have award schemes like the Komla Dumor award, and then, as I said, just in the past three years, the BBC invested in two modern, massive multimedia bureau in Nairobi and in Lagos, in East and West Africa, and expanded with six new languages. It’s no small thing. This is the biggest expansion since the 1940s.

So, this shows real commitment on the part of the BBC, clearly, to continue developing journalism in Africa, and very smart, intelligent colleagues are staff of those bureaus. I would urge you to go on the various language websites, be it Pidgin, Hausa, Yoruba, Igbo, Afaan Oromo, Amharic, Kinyarwanda, Kirundi, Kiswahili, Somali and Tigrinya and just see the type of content that is being produced. All of these journalists were recruited in Africa and are working towards international standards.

So, post COVID-19 era, what should the media be doing in the continent?
The media has a big role in people’s lives. First of all, we have a big weight of responsibility on our shoulders about giving accurate information; information that will not endanger people’s lives, information that will be useful to them, information that they can access easily and that they can apply in a practical way to their lives. We have a very big responsibility on our shoulders, so, with the COVID-19, of course, with the lockdown, I think the first thing is of course that responsibility of giving information as fact rather than with any agenda whatsoever.

Secondly, I think we should also try to explain the world to our audiences, so, its not just news about ‘this has happened,’ it should be news about, ‘this has happened, what does it mean?’ So you asked about post-COVID-19, have we come out of it? If we ever get to a stage of saying post COVID-19, because COVID-19 is here to stay with us, but post-lockdown, we say, as people gradually begin to come out of lockdown, to find a new way of working, a new way of travelling, we have that responsibility to continue to help them to navigate all of that. How can you begin to go to work safely? What do you do? How do you get your education back on track? How do you get your career back on track? How do you go looking for a job? If you’re an unemployed graduate, for instance, and now, all of a sudden, offices do not welcome visitors anymore, what do you do?

Practical explainers like that, practical information and perspectives that will help people and guiding them towards getting exact information … okay, if those offices are not opened physically, what else can you do? Use your brain. Do they have a website? Can you go on that website and upload your CV, or get information that you wanted to physically go and get from the physical office? We can just really help Africans make sense of the world, and I think that will be, of course, bringing them all the information, all the news, but also explaining it.

What’s the future of media in Africa?
Oh, I think the future is very bright. We’ve come a long way, just from my experience of setting up that bureau in Lagos, I have seen some really amazing, intelligent journalists who we recruited, I was really impressed, we travelled all across Ghana, Nigeria, Cameroun and other countries in the region. I’ve got great hopes and expectations for many journalists in the continent.

As I said, every year, we run the Komla Dumor award, through that, we also come across many ripe journalists who are doing fantastic things and who are really curious, hungry and interested in the world. I would say that is the best thing that any journalist can do, just always have that radar of curiosity, asking questions, digging deeper, what does this mean? Don’t take any headline for its value. Go beyond that. What exactly does this mean? What’s behind this? Why is this being said? Who said it? Are they even a credible person to say it?

That hunger is something that I see on the continent, and therefore it gives me great hope and pride to mentor several journalists across Africa and I’m really humbled to be able to do that and to pass on my skills and my experience of so many years of working in international journalism and I think the future is very bright for the continent. I also think, with technology, as it continues to improve, access to the internet, mobile phone usage, digital audio, as people download contents to listen to on their phones, the future is really bright for journalism and journalists in Africa.


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