Foreign Affairs CommitteeWritten evidence from the BBC

BBC World Service and Global News in the Commonwealth Overview

The BBC’s global role in the provision of high quality independent news and analysis has enabled it to have a substantial presence and impact across the Commonwealth—it delivers outstanding journalism on radio, television, online and mobile platforms, bringing a wide global perspective to its audiences.

Audience interaction is central to the way that BBC World Service operates—it provides a platform for debate on key issues that link many Commonwealth countries providing opportunities for its audience to engage with the BBC and audiences across the Commonwealth. Programmes such as World Have Your Say (WHYS) encourage the audience to participate and provide perhaps the strongest link for Commonwealth citizens with the UK on a day-to-day basis, when compared to other British institutions.

BBC World Service (BBCWS) is available either on short wave, medium wave or on FM in all but one (Samoa) of the 54 member countries of the Commonwealth, BBC World News (BBCWN) is also available via satellite in many of these countries, and bbc.com/news is available throughout the Commonwealth. BBC Global News (including BBCWS, BBCWN and BBC online) reaches 90.1 million people weekly across the Commonwealth, of which 79.1 million tune into BBC World Service. The BBC’s strong presence in the Commonwealth, in terms of its wide range of distribution platforms and partnerships, is also partly down to the UK’s historical links with member countries.

In addition, BBC Media Action, the BBC’s international development charity, currently has projects running in eight Commonwealth countries (Bangladesh, India, Kenya, Nigeria, Pakistan, Sierra Leone, Tanzania and Zambia), including an educational drama series in Nigeria which reaches more then 20 million people.

Foreign Office Minister, Jeremy Browne MP, recently described the BBC as “the most influential broadcaster in the world”—its values of accuracy, impartiality, objectivity, trust and internationalism are respected and often imitated throughout the Commonwealth and globally. As well as offering an international perspective, the BBC’s coverage of British events and systems, such as the Olympics in London, the Diamond Jubilee, UK elections and legislation, enables its audience across the Commonwealth and more widely to learn about Britain, and to keep across major UK news stories.

Some highlights of the BBC’s reach and impact in the Commonwealth are detailed below:

The BBC’s biggest audiences in the Commonwealth are in Africa with 19.4 million weekly listeners to BBC Hausa in Nigeria and 12.6 million listeners to the Swahili Service in Tanzania. BBC WN and WS English (which produces special programmes for Africa) are also strong in these two countries—in Nigeria BBC WN has an audience of 5.7 million and WS English has an audience of 7.6 million.

BBC WN is also strong in India with an audience of 3.2 million and in Pakistan it has an audience of 2.6 million, whilst BBC Urdu has 5.3 million listeners. BBC Bengali has a notable audience of 7.8 million listeners in Bangladesh.

BBC online is most popular in Canada with 1.5 million users, and in Australia (910,000 users).

Research carried out by Human Capital in 2010 found that the majority of BBC consumers in the Commonwealth countries surveyed felt that it was essential or very important for the UK to provide the BBC to the world—over 90% in Kenya and 88% in Pakistan (some of the audience comments recorded as part of this research project are shown at the end of this document).

As the world’s attention is on London and Britain in 2012, the London Calling season, running across all BBC Global News platforms, includes compelling programming around the Olympics, the Diamond Jubilee and the Cultural Olympiad throughout the summer. It is a major campaign which brings modern Britain to the BBC’s Commonwealth and global audiences.

Recent Commonwealth issues discussed on WHYS include Pakistan’s missile test, the deportation of Nigerians from South Africa, India’s banning of cotton exports and the sacking of 25,000 nurses in Kenya. A special WHYS programme coming up in June will broadcast from the Royal Commonwealth Society in London with key guests linking up with contributors across the Commonwealth to discuss amongst other things whether the Commonwealth remains an effective and meaningful organisation.

BBC World Class, the BBC’s school twinning initiative, working with external partners including the British Council, links up schools in the UK with those overseas, many of which are in the Commonwealth (www.bbc.co.uk/worldclass). The BBC hopes to extend this project until August 2014 to tie in with the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow.

The BBC provides ELT content on a number of BBC online platforms and through partners attracting visitors from all of the 54 Commonwealth countries. It has developed and created the English language teaching framework and content for a DfiD-funded intervention programme (BBC Janala) in Bangladesh. This is a unique and ground-breaking programme which utilises the benefits of the large mobile infrastructure and mobile usage in Bangladesh to deliver high quality, award-winning content to some of the poorest and hardest to reach audiences in the country including women, rural village dwellers and urban male youth. The purpose is to improve English language levels and, through that, economic opportunity.

Also in Bangladesh, following broadcasts of BBC Sanglap Question Time style programmes, the number of similar programmes by other broadcasters substantially increased, and this style of programming continued through other programmes long after Bangladesh Sanglap ended. A new series of Sanglap is being planned by BBC Media Action with support from DfID.

In Zambia and Sierra Leone, BBC Media Action is building the capacity of community radio stations to produce interactive programming that enables people to question politicians and engage in a public debate on the issues that shape their lives.

In Nigeria BBC Media Action continues to produce the popular radio soap opera Story Story, which reaches more than 20 million people across the country focusing on governance and health issues (including voter rights around the recent 2011 Presidential and Parliamentary elections).

The BBC is a member of the Commonwealth Broadcasting Association, and Peter Horrocks, Director Global News, sits on the board. He recently spoke at the CBA annual conference in Brisbane attended by public service broadcasters of every size, which focussed on media leadership during international crises, disasters and emergencies—an area in which the BBC has a long history.

Looking Ahead

Following the Government’s Spending Review 2010, and subsequent budgetary cuts, BBCWS had to make some difficult decisions with regards to its distribution and range of regional and language services offered. A number of reductions to short wave and medium wave broadcasts were made and the Caribbean Service was amongst the services closed. However, the BBC aims to continue to maintain a strong presence in people’s lives across the Commonwealth, and has found ways of sustaining its presence where cuts to AM broadcasts have been made.

In many countries of the Commonwealth BBC programming is available through local FM broadcasts, either directly or via its partners, and on BBC World News. For example, WS English content continues to be available through a number of outlets throughout the Caribbean including via FM relays in Antigua, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago and Barbados and BBC WN is available in The Bahamas, Barbados, Dominica, Grenada, Jamaica, St. Kitts, St. Lucia & Trinidad. Meanwhile Australia ABC transmits programmes such as The World Today and Newshour daily, in Canada WS programmes are available on public radio stations and via CBC Canada, and in the Pacific Islands (including Fiji, Kiribati, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu) BBCWS radio is transmitted 24 hours a day on local FM frequencies.

Whilst radio distribution is increasing via FM broadcasts and partnerships, online and mobile audiences are also growing rapidly. In addition, we have plans to expand TV programme activity, which are intended to address the global shortfall in impartial news, particularly in Africa, where the BBC’s editorial offer will be re-energised and expanded in the face of a diminishing independent media and the growing Chinese media presence across the continent.

BBC World Service strategy over the next few years is to develop cost-effective TV partnerships, which offer the prospect of large audiences and high impact at relatively low cost. Despite reduced budgets BBCWS has sought to set aside limited funds for this purpose to enable it to respond to new audience needs, and retain a strong and impactful presence in the increasingly competitive markets in which it operates.

Current television plans include an African English daily programme and a Swahili daily programme, reaching countries such as Ghana, Kenya, Zambia, Uganda and Tanzania. There are also plans for a thrice-weekly Urdu programme for Pakistan. BBCWS is aiming to have these on air by Autumn 2012, all of which will enhance the BBC’s output to Commonwealth countries. Development work on a Hindi weekly pilot project is also taking place (subject to identifying further investment funds).

Looking ahead to BBC World Service’s move to Licence Fee funding in 2014, and its physical move to new Broadcasting House in W1 along with colleagues from BBC News, BBC journalism will be strengthened further by bringing the best of the BBC’s global capability to both UK and overseas audiences. It will also bring UK audiences closer to global audiences, including those in the Commonwealth. Recent independent research carried out in the UK has indicated that the BBC’s international news services are strongly supported by Licence Fee Payers. The majority of respondents believed it was important to have an international news service and many expressed pride in the BBC’s reputation for impartial news.

The BBC intends to continue to play its role in maintaining a strong British presence across the Commonwealth through the provision of trusted impartial news, information and analysis with an international perspective.

(Comments recorded by respondents who took part in the Human Capital research, commissioned by BBC World Service in 2010.)

4 May 2012

Prepared 14th November 2012