Our language expansion represents our ambitious audience target
New Director of BBC World Service Group, Jamie Angus, during the official launch of the BBC Lagos Bureau recently, spoke to DOLAPO AINA on the group’s language expansion project and how it would better the lot of its audiences.
Who is Jamie Angus and how did your foray into journalism begin?
I joined the BBC nearly 19 years ago. I had been working in politics a bit. I had worked in Westminster (in the UK Parliament) for a few years. Then, I joined the BBC as a researcher on our breakfast radio programme called The Today Programme which is the national main politics and news programme on radio in the United Kingdom. Ever since at the BBC, I have worked sometimes in the World Service,; sometimes in domestic news. Before I was the director of the World Service; I was the editor of The Today Programme (so I was on the domestic side; then moved back to the global side.) And I have had lots of previous involvement in the World Service over the years. So, I have always had a really keen interest of what we do globally and a real ambition to lead this path of the organisation. Because the BBC’s global mission ultimately is to reach five hundred million people weekly in multiple languages across the globe. It is just such an important part of what the BBC exists to do. And it is a real pleasure to be leading that.
You joined the BBC in 1999. How has the journey being?
Specifically on the World Service; we have adopted a very ambitious audience target. Our Director General Tony Hall (Lord Hall of Birkenhead was appointed Director-General of the BBC on 22 November 2012. He is the 16th Director-General of the BBC. Prior to this, Tony Hall was Chief Executive of the Royal Opera House from April 2001 until April 2013.) once said that by our (BBC) Centennial anniversary in 2022; that we should reach 500 million people a week. And we are currently on 372 million people a week. We are doing alright. But part of the reason that these new language expansions, these new languages are so important to us; is that it enables us to reach all these new audiences who probably would not otherwise have consumed BBC news content and stories. And specifically here in Nigeria; for Igbo, Yoruba and to an extent pidgin; there are listeners and readers online now who are getting BBC news, who would never really have consumed it in English or in Hausa (which is the other language we have operated in here.) So, I think that is a really exciting part of our mission that we would genuinely reach people globally and here in West Africa, who have never really seen BBC news content before. And that is just a really great privilege and really exciting part of what we doing.
In a snapshot, you used to be the deputy director of the World Service Group and now the director. How is the role different from the director of the BBC World Service Group?
Previously, I was working as the deputy director and my then boss Francesca Unsworth (who since January 2018 has been Director, News and Current Affairs); was the director. I suppose I was more involved as deputy director in the day to day running of our commercial news company. We run a commercial company called BBC Global News Limited that is responsible for the BBC World News channel and our website in English. And we run those as heavily commercialised operations. So, probably I spent more time on 2017 working on the English side of the output. But I would always and have always had an interest in the new language services. And this time of unprecedented expansion; I have been particularly enjoying focussing more (during this week) on the new language services and what we can bring to the West Africa and Nigerian news market.
With a weekly audience of about 372 million. Why is the BBC keen on expansion?
As I said earlier, partly it is because we have set ourselves a target just because we think the BBC’s global reach is one of its public purposes. The United Kingdom license fee payer who pays for a lot of the BBC has a stake in the BBC being a really highly visible content provider around the world and that benefits people in the United Kingdom. That benefits the UK license fee payer and more widely everyone who pays their taxes in the UK. Because it means that British people are well received around the world because of the quality of the BBC’s content. But it also, means that somewhere like here in Nigeria, where we are investing heavily and recruiting local journalists; the insight that they provide us as a news organisation, really benefits viewers in the UK. My contention is that UK audiences would benefit hugely from the expansion here; even though a lot of the content is in languages they cannot or would not understand. So, there is benefit to everyone here; to the quality of our journalism; to audiences in Nigeria and to audiences in the United Kingdom.
If my memory serves me right; some years ago, the BBC was not keen on expansion, what changed?
I think that one of the most important things is that the World Service has had an additional investment in it from the UK government in the last two or three years; to open these additional eleven language services including the three that we are talking about today. And that was additional money on top of the existing World Service funds that gave us the ability to expand. I think that it was not that we were not keen on expanding; it was just that we had a fixed port of revenue and we had to focus carefully on what we had to spend it on. And we agreed with the government (nearly three years ago) to expand the number of language services because we felt that these audiences would never be reached in English and that it was an important part of the BBC global mission to expand our news coverage into these new languages. And so, that is why excitingly, everything you can see around you is a product of that investment. A commitment to be a player, a partner in this market here alongside your strong media houses. For example; we are talking about our Channels TV co-production that we are going to launch later this year (a weekly half hour topical news show). That is a very good example of where we have a trusted local partner; it is a full co-production and it embodies the best of what they can bring and the best of what we can bring. And that is the sort of partnership module that the BBC likes to follow here in Nigeria and elsewhere.
With forty one language services; where would you say you have the largest audiences?
Actually here in Nigeria. Nigeria is our single largest country market. We have got thirty six million a week in Nigeria and that is measured currently across Hausa and English language services. That is so because we have not measured the new audiences yet. So, Hausa and English language services give us thirty six million a week. It is our single largest country audience. Bigger even than the United States (thirty four million). And that is why Nigeria is incredibly important to the BBC. We are very proud of our long history of broadcasting in Hausa. And the Hausa audience is twenty million a week in Nigeria (twenty four million in total; in addition to the four million Hausa listeners in Niger Republic) and it is still the BBC’s single largest audience. It is an unbelievable resilient and important service which is still mainly shortwave radio. But also to an extent, the digital side. And it has been a sort of historical anomaly that the BBC has broadcast in Hausa but not in Igbo or Yoruba and also pidgin. And it is fantastic that we are able to correct that anomaly and extend our language services to the four main languages of Nigeria (if you like. Obviously pidgin is slightly different but it is a West African language). And that is good because it means that all Nigerian language groups would be better served by BBC News than they were before.
What are your important platforms for digital growth in Nigeria and West Africa?
At the moment we run our own websites (bbc.com/hausa; bbc.com/Igbo; bbc.com/Yoruba; bbc.com/pidgin). But also, we operate on major social platforms particularly on Facebook here in West Africa (which is a popular platform in West Africa). And to some extent, we syndicate our content with local partners. So, we are interested in developing partnerships with local digital publishers who would syndicate BBC content onto their platform. That is part of how we operate around the globe. We do not just have a walled garden on our own platforms. We share it through third party providers’ platforms. Sometimes, on a commercial basis and sometimes just for reach. And that is part of our plans here in Nigeria. We want to build the audiences for this new language websites but that would take time and would probably involve local partners and as well as the direct type.
Why online. Why not the old way of doing it through shortwave?
We are still doing radio and we still do both. We do the BBC one minute international news summary which runs on FM stations in Igbo, Yoruba, Pidgin and English. We are still doing radio summaries. We are keeping Hausa shortwave radio because it is so valuable to us. And we are also doing increased TV content this year (2018). One of the things we would be doing as well as the Channels co-production is; we are also making original investigative journalism available to selected partners in Nigeria. We are doing business, sports, children’s news programming, some satire. We are also expanding into non-live TV programming that we would also make available to selected partners in Nigeria. So, those things people sometime call legacy platforms (radio and TV) are massively important to us still. But we do see that in the very long term, audiences will shift to digital and we know that we have to build a presence and reputation there so, we are doing all of those things simultaneously. It is not about raising digital up; ahead of all the others but we do need to transform as a news organisation; as I am sure The Guardian Group and all other journalism organisations would be familiar with. All journalism organisations are on a journey to a digital future but it is a question of how long does it take to get there and sustaining and growing your linear audiences on TV and radio in the meantime.
How do you intend to build a loyal consumer base for the Nigerian languages?
That is a very good question. To be honest, that is a challenge for us. We have only just launched these new services. But what we already see is that people would come to us for one article. But what we want is to build a longer and more enduring relationship with audiences so that they would come back weekly or monthly for multiple visits. And that is hard. Nigeria is a vibrant, well served media market in many ways and although digital is growing, we will have to fight and jostle just as hard as other providers to make a real impact on digital platforms. And that is why we are interested in working in partnership with other digital publishers here because (though) we would always be able to build our own audiences and our own platforms. But to grow quickly, I think we have to work in partnership with others.
From your perspective, do you think there is a gap in the Nigerian market for high quality international news coverage?
Yes, there is a gap particularly for that international segment. The Nigerian market covers national and regional issues well. The BBC would continue to cover regional and national issues across the digital platforms and on the radio because we do think that as the most trusted international news provider, there are times audiences in Nigeria would turn to the BBC for the definitive version of a particular story. There was a fake news story which had wrongly published the death of the President for example. The BBC was able to very definitively say that this was an untrue fake news story. So, there are moments when people would turn to the BBC for big global news stories and big breaking international news. But we also want to serve audiences here (if you like) “near news content”. That is, content that helps people understand the issues in the news. But also, addresses stories that are under represented in the Nigerian market. So, we are particularly interested in gender balance; publishing better and more effectively, stories that are of interest to women audiences because we think there is a deficit for that in the market, which the BBC can help address. And also, other types of stories about things that might be taboo or maybe just under covered in the local market. That is part of the BBC’s mission is to lead in that way. And we think that through having a wide offer which covers near news, sports, technology, medicine, business, entrepreneurship; as well as “Donald Trump-North Korea” type of news (global affairs news); we need that kind of broad mix of stories and also innovative digital treatment (good digital videos, caption videos such as optimised for social platforms). That is how you would build an audience. You cannot just build an audience on international breaking news.
In the 21st Century media sphere of misinformation, disinformation and fake news; how can a media firm stand out being a credible source of information?
Countering fake news is one of my strategic priorities in 2018 for the whole of World Service Group. The reason for that is that through our language services, we have an unprecedented ability to spot fake news stories and call them out on the BBC platform. And actually, I think we should seize that opportunity and not shy away from it. And so, sometimes it is like seeing a made up story of someone saying the President has died; when he has not. Sometimes, it is people faking BBC news; faking BBC news reports and put the pictures with our logo; put a different audio and share them. And I think that one of the truly interesting things happening now is that these types of stories are being shared on chats’ apps (and not even being shared on Facebook or on desktop platforms.) They are being circulated on hand to hand; on chat apps. And it is very difficult to spot them because those chat apps like whatsapp; are private services, you cannot search it.
I think the BBC is really well placed to lead; spotting stories and calling them out. But also to help globally with this idea of a global media literacy. So, the idea that as digital publishing has expanded so fast; people’s understanding of what is trustworthy and what is not; has not quite caught up; and the BBC has a central role to play in helping to explain to audiences how to evaluate news and which news outlet to trust. Now, obviously, we want people to trust us and we already have that values associated with us (as the most trusted international news brand.) But it is part of how the BBC can help globally as a media player; is to develop with local partners like how do you tackle global media literacy.
How would you describe the evolvement of news reporting?
As you can see around you, we have made a significant investment (over a hundred jobs) in essentially national and regional journalism from the Nigeria and West Africa base here in Lagos; across the four languages in total. And that is because we think that there is no substitute for going on the ground; reporting stories and basing your journalism on actual expertise. So, the new journalists we have hired here would help audiences in the UK understand Nigeria better. There is a strong Diaspora link between Nigerian and the UK. So, there is a real thirst for high quality information about Nigeria. But also, we think we cannot report Nigeria effectively from London or just one regional base. So it is important for us to have West Africa coverage mainly from Lagos but also in Abuja (also we have a big bureau in Dakar, Senegal). We are on the ground in more African countries than any other international broadcaster. That is because we believe in the value of going to places and looking for facts and reporting them. That may feel a bit old fashioned sometimes but it is something we feel very passionate about.
In your opinion, what tools have disrupted the way news is reported?
Interestingly, digital news is really exciting in a lot of ways because it reduces the cost of entry to the market to almost zero. Ten to fifteen years ago, you would have had to buy a chain of newspapers, printing presses and TV channels; in order to get into the news business. Digital has transformed that and that means that anyone can start publishing news for nothing effectively. The upside of that is that it is easier now than ever before to reach new audiences if you are a quality news publisher because you just can publish news on social platforms. People might see it; they might like it and they might come back for more. The downside of that is that there is a real quality and trust deficit now. So, there is just too much low quality content being published either for fraud reasons, click baits or fake news. Or because it is politically motivated (fake news; malicious content). And that is the huge conundrum about digital publishing. It has massive benefits but it also poses a real challenge to people’s safety and security because we see fake news stories that are not just Donald Trump saying CNN is fake news. But fake news that deliberately set out to foment tension between ethnic groups, communal tensions and violence. It is dangerous. It is not just a media talking point but a real threat to people’s security and wellbeing. And that is the big challenge of fake news and digital publishing.
A plethora of global media firms are operating the paywall system. Why isn’t the BBC doing likewise?
So, the TV channel in English (that is the World News Channel and the English website: bbc.com/news) are commercialised in the sense that they carry out advertising. And actually, the TV channel in a sense is a paywalled product since it sits on a subscription which is on DSTV (and you don’t get DSTV for free). So, the BBC has always had a few different ways of reaching audiences but I think what is interesting about the world service model is that a lot of our activities is not for profit. And that is not commercialised. It is essentially done for reach and just to maximise our global audience. And it does that because of the investment of the UK license fee payer and the UK government in the world service.
So, I am not saying that there would never be a world where we would extend micro-payments or paywalls (I mean, every digital publisher in the world is thinking about these issues). And we think about it a lot. But what is different for us is that we are not solely there to make profits. The profit imperative is not as great for the BBC World Service as it is in some other areas. And so, that allows us to continue to give away content effectively for nothing in the interest of growing our audience. And that is what we have primarily doing here.
What is the title of the book you are currently reading?
I am currently reading the Robert Harris’ book about Cicero titled “The Cicero Trilogy”. It is a trilogy. I have read the third book titled “Dictator”. The second book is titled “Lustrum”. I am reading the first book titled “Imperium”. It is a historical novel about Cicero and it is by British author Robert Harris.
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