Terrorism is not harder to cover than war or famine, – Tarik Kafala, Controller of Languages at BBC World Service
In June, the Ukrainian BBC Service turned 25. To celebrate this event, Tarik Kafala, controller of language services of the BBC World Service, arrived in Kyiv. Mr. Kafala has been working at BBC for over twenty years as a reporter, editor, producer of programs - both on television, on the radio and on the Internet. Until 2016, he was a chairman of the BBC Arabic; under his leadership, a BBC bureau was opened in Cairo. In an interview, MediaSapiens asked Mr. Kafal about resonant changes in the BBC World Service, in particular about the largest expansion in the last 76 years and the plans to open eleven new language services, as well as about how the BBC plans to expand its audience.
About the financing of the BBC World Service
and the "regionalization" of products
- What lies at the basis of the plan of BBC expansion in various regions? Any expansions or cuts: what are they based on?
We did a big project in the BBC called “The future of news”, and the aim was to look at technology, social habits and change in how people are consuming news, and our competitors. I worked only on international aspect of that. The result of this piece of study was meant to inform us in the BBC about how we should prepare ourselves for future – technological, social etc. The conclusion was a tough one for BBC World Service, saying that if BBC World Service was to move from where it is now to where it needed to be in the future, it had to go through a big transformation.
The World Service’s primary objective, its core purpose is to provide news and current affairs, where there is not enough of it, or a lack of it – an environment where there is poor access to news, or there is no independent news. So, when we looked at all of that, we came to the conclusion, that a) we needed to go through a transformation and b) that we were actually producing news for some regions that we didn’t need to be producing news for, and in other cases we were not producing news for regions we should be producing news for, based on our core principles.
So, for example, we realized that the Korean Peninsula, the two Koreas - North and South, - Eritrea and Ethiopia, some parts of Africa, large parts of India were not served by the BBC – not served at all or not sufficiently served. We realized that in the Middle East, in order to serve our audiences better, we needed to regionalize, making more specific programming for the Gulf region, for North Africa, for Egypt which is our biggest market. So we realized we needed to change things, and that was going to take investment. So we could say,stop doing 50% of what we do and do a new stuff, or we needed investment. We made the case to the government and they accepted the case, and investment over a limited period of time was put into the BBC World Service. So that’s why the BBC World Service’s expansion is happening.
- Last year the British government said that it would provide extra funding for BBC. Since then the BBC has closed over 40 domestic sites and resources. There were reports about the need to make 15% cuts of editorial budget. How are these facts related to each other?
We have in the BBC a central budget for news. There is a very substantial saving that we have to make on that. And this is to do with the fact that the bulk of BBC’s funding comes from the license fee – everyone in Britain, who has a television, pays a particular fee, which is £147 a year for a household. Most of the BBC World Service funding comes from the same source. We have an agreement with the government that this is going to remain, for another eight years; however it does not include inflation, and the government is expecting us to do more with the fixed amount of money. So it has given us more duties, more responsibilities – they are to do with technology, renewal of infrastructure and so on, and these are very expensive things. And that means that there are savings across the BBC, including BBC News and including us, BBC World Service. So that was the situation before the government announced the investment. However, the government has also said to the BBC: you must protect the World Service funding because we believe in the World Service, it is very important - and they gave us extra investment. So whilst our core funding has been squeezed, we have this new investment. But this new investment is not to protect what we currently do, it’s to do new things. And so it is a strange situation when the BBC World Service is being cut, squeezed - and being invested in at the same time.
The core funding is from license fee, but we have some extra investment for four years, until 2020, to do new products. For this region, we are investing in the Ukrainian, Azerbaijani and Russian services. If we are speaking about the post-Soviet countries – also in the Uzbek and Kyrgyz services.
- Is paying attention to these countries connected with the state of the freedom of speech there?
Well, we pay attention to the Middle East, to Asia, to Africa, to many regions, it’s partly in some cases to do with freedom of the press, in some cases it is to do with consolidation of the media. So, somewhere like Serbia there is very active press, however it is owned by a very small number of people. So it varies. For us, Ukraine is obviously a country with some challenges – be they economic, social, political, but also territorial, military and so on - so it is the region of interest to us in terms of reporting it to the world. But also we have a strong audience here, we have a growing audience, and, apart from what we are doing on the website, which is changing, we are trying to offer a new product, at TV bulletin, up to 15 minutes long. It’s a very digital TV bulletin, not a standard, traditional one.
We broadcast to North America - Canada and US - in English in the World Service. Canada and the US are some of the freest media environments that there are, they are very free, very open, very plural. However, there is a real gap in that market in international news and in news analysis, so it’s not always about the press freedom or suppression of journalists or the freedom of speech, it’s sometimes about the fact that we, the BBC, do something well and that market doesn’t do it. And we will provide for that market as well. Our product in the US and Canada is commercial, so it has ad revenue. In the case of, say, Ukraine and Middle East - it’s not. So our strategic objectives vary.
And we have two markets in the US. We distribute on TV, which is a very international news product (via BBC World News), and the other one – through NPR, National Public Radio, which is a network of radio stations which are supported by subscribers. On NPR we distribute features, science, music, culture – a whole range of products – via BBC World Service English.
- Regarding BBC Russian, is there any pressure on your journalist in Russia?
Yes. Working in Russia is difficult. On the other hand, we have a large bureau there. We have more than 80 people - and the number is increasing – working there. We employ people to gather news, to produce news. We do it in English, we do it in Russian. We send reporters from other language services to Moscow and elsewhere in Russia. It is not the easiest environment to work in, but most of the world is quite difficult to work in, in different ways.
- Can we say, that if BBC stop its presence in any country, it means, that everything there it’s ok now? :)
That would mean that we have had to prioritize, and we do not have the money to be there, perhaps. In some cases it does mean, yes, as far, as we are concerned, we can’t bring anything extra. It’s two things: one - it might be that we can bring something extra, on the other hand, it might be that we have to choose, that we can’t be everywhere.
About social networks, television and personalization
- I know that the corporation set the goal of reaching an audience of 500 million for its global services by 2022. How are you going to accomplish this? And what is the role of social media in that process?
Our weekly international news audience is 346 million. The BBC’s entire global weekly audience has reached 372 million people. We have some way to go. The social media is key, because it’s area of news that is growing. More and more people - in America it’s more, than 50% and in many countries it’s around that - receive their news from Facebook. In some cases – in Iran and the Gulf, for example - Telegram is very important because it’s encrypted and people can use it privately. So social media is very important for achieving that target. However, the latest audience figures we have for the BBC World Service show our growth is fastest in television, not in social media. So if I, as a senior manager, looked at everything that we do, I would say, wow, television is where we are growing most, put all your money in there.
But we know that in the future this is going to change. We know that in five, six, eight years it’s going to be very different. However, at the moment TV is very, very important to us. Social and digital are very important, we have to grow, especially to reach new and younger audiences, but television is still the area where we are growing very fast, and that is not unusual, it’s not just us - many media organizations are growing in television very, very strongly. They are growing in social and digital, too, but not as steeply.
- When you are talking about growth of the TV platform, do you mean geographical expansion, or some other means of expanding your TV presence? How are you going to grow this TV audience?
We are doing a variety of different programmes and different new news formats. In the case of Ukraine, we are going to do a television news bulletin, up to 15 minutes every weekday for the first time. In the case of Arabic, which is a very big part of the World Service languages, we are doing regional programmes, we are closing some programmes and opening a lot of new ones. In the case of the Russian market, we are combining news with other things that the BBC does well: drama, science and nature, investigations. So we are changing the menu a bit in many areas. We are not just doing more of the same, but doing more, but different, new stuff as well, new formats, new combinations. What we are going to offer in the Russian-language market – not just Russia - is really “the best of the BBC”. It’s not just the BBC news. It’s wider than that.
- Where is this TV programme in Ukraine going to be carried?
We are hoping it will be carried with TV partners here, and it will be on digital. We have not yet reached any agreements with television partners who will carry it as part of their schedule, but they are waiting for us to offer them a pilot to say this is what the program looks like. We are in talks with a few partners currently.
- Do you work on alternative ways of delivering the content? It is believed that even sites will soon disappear. Are you currently working on personalization?
We are in a strange interim period. Digital consumption of news is growing, and we are benefiting from that, and the number of people who are coming to homepages (eg BBC Ukrainian, BBC Arabic, BBC News in English) is declining. And this is because more and more people are getting news through social media, they are not coming back to your site; they are using your stories, your content, your graphics, your videos, your explainers, your background pieces, all of that is being consumed widely – but people are not seeing it on your website.
For example, for BBC Arabic, about 30% of our digital audience come to our website. About 70% of our digital audience in Arabic are seeing us on social media, on other platforms. Are we going to give up on our website? No. But we are going to invest more in how we make content that is suitable and easy to find, searchable, appears in the news feeds and so on. We are having to learn more about how to put news on social media and the way people see it, consume it, and use it, and share it, and interact with it. But we are not going to give up on our websites, because that 30% is your most loyal audience, is the audience that comes to you six times a day, rather than once or twice a week. So we have to be careful. We know the trend is in one direction, more and more off-site, more and more on social media. But the audience that loves us, that really needs us, comes to our website. So we have to do both. We are aware of the problem, as you say.
In the UK, if you use the BBC iPlayer or the BBC news site, you are going to be asked to log in, ie to register - once only. And this allows us to get much more personalized data on how people are using our content digitally - on the iPlayer and on the websites, and in social media. It then allows us to serve audiences in much more detailed way - to give them more of what they want, to offer the “furniture” around the story in a more coherent way. To do that internationally is a very big step. At the moment we want to get our stories in front of people. And we have quite a lot of data about our audiences. Whether we go into this registration and personalization internationally - not now. Maybe in three or four years’ time. It is a big job.
As a public service, we are not allowed to commercialize data, and we would not do that anyway. There is no benefit in that data for us except to know more about our audiences. And so, while companies, such as Facebook, that are selling you things, want to know as much about you as possible, we want to know what you think about our product, and that’s it. We do not need to know anything else about you. We do not need to know, what else you do with your time, when you do your shopping, whether you like this or that, that, for us, is your business. Commercial companies, like Amazon, Google, need to know everything about you because they make money on advertising.
- It is also a question of standards for you, I guess.
Yes, it’s partly a question of standards, it’s partly a question of what people will accept from us. In the UK people already pay £147 once a year for the BBC. If we start to try to make more money out of them, or using their data to sell them something, people say: “No”. It’s partly to do with your reputation, your relationship with your consumer.
- Are you satisfied with experiencing Instant Articles?
Not in all markets. We had an example: in the Vietnamese market, Instant Articles were very popular and drove traffic. In the Americas, in Portuguese and Spanish, we found that it did nothing for us and it even may contribute to a slight decline; people did not want to use Instant Articles, they wanted to see our ones. So in some markets Instant Articles are very beneficial, in some markets - not. In some markets a mobile app is very beneficial, in some markets they fail. Some markets need them and accept them, some don’t. We do not know why. So we try it, it is free to us and brings us new readers. We will try, if we are able financially, to be wherever people want to get our product. As much as we can.
About entertaining content and standards
- In the context of the "White Paper" published last year, there were a lot of conversations about a need to change the wording of the BBC mission as some British politicians alleged that the BBC is becoming too similar to its commercial competitors and its content is becoming more entertaining.
Putting the BBC News aside, regarding the BBC in general there is a big argument in the UK about why the BBC is doing entertainment, why it is doing sport, drama - because there are commercial companies that can do sport, drama and entertainment. There is a big argument about, if we are paying from the license fee, shouldn’t the BBC do something that commercial companies, the market cannot do? And the BBC said, no. Because, they said, the commercial market does do drama, but we do it better. And they said there is some sport that we do, that the commercial market won’t do, e.g. women’s sport, sport for disabled athletes, minority sports, be it canoeing or mountain climbing. There are lots of things that BBC does, that people want – and we know that because they watch it – but that the commercial market wouldn’t do. So the BBC said we have to stay in drama, in sport, in entertainment because there are things that we do that the market won’t do.
As to the news: the more traditional, serious news is reaching the audience of 45 and older, the audience that has a lot of news from the BBC, they use the BBC, and they are very loyal audience. And that is very successful and good. Now there is another problem, which is that everybody who has a TV in the UK, whether you are 60, or whether you are 18, or whether you are from Manchester, or from Cardiff, or wherever you are from – they all are paying their license. Are we providing a product for everybody? This was a big argument in the BBC. Yes, there may be a process which is to do with doing new formats, shorter formats, bitesize news, Newsbeat, which is short radio bulletin, very quick, with some music behind it. I feel that the BBC has an obligation to reach audience, whether you are 50 or whether you are 18. We have to. We should be serving everybody. Not all the time every day, but we should make available high-quality news content for everybody. We are not doing less of the serious content. We still do that very heavily, we are very committed to that, but we are doing other content as well. I do not apologize for that. I think we have to do it.
- In Ukraine, as maybe in the rest of the world, BBC and journalistic standards are almost synonymous. Is it difficult to maintain this higher standards internally and what would you advise journalist outside the BBC to maintain those standards? Is there any way to motivate them?
It’s very hard to maintain those standards. The main way we do this is through training. And we do reviews. So essentially we have a “constitution” for our journalism, which is the Producer Guidelines, and these talk about almost all areas of journalism in terms of checking your information, in terms of causing offense, in terms of how you talk about violence, or children, or the law etc. And we hold all producers, everyone from junior producer in the newsroom to me – we all held to the same standard. And what that means is continual training and revision of the standards, and monitoring. It’s a difficult process, and it is very kind of you to say journalistic standards and BBC are synonymous. But this is our only value. If we don’t have that, we should go home and do something else. Because what we are asking people – in Ukraine, or Somalia, Libya or wherever it might be - we say, when there is something really important, come to us, we will tell it to you straight and simple, we are an authority. Now, in order to maintain that, we have to work very, very hard. And we do make mistakes sometimes, in some cases it takes us a while to get the language right, in some cases a reporter will push a line too far - we are human beings. So it’s difficult, but it’s a process, it is something you do all the time every day.
In terms of advice, there are two things: one is reviewing, do it all the time, honestly and without vanity. And the second one is to listen to your audience. Because your audience tell you very quickly if you got something wrong, you got the emphasis wrong, and you are not giving them the information they need.
- Several terrorist attacks have taken place in the UK recently, and the BBC is likely to be particularly sensitive to the issue of terrorism coverage. Does the BBC have a specific approach to the coverage of terrorism?
Terrorism is not harder to cover than war or famine, or a big natural disaster. I think we get caught up in it a little bit because it has a political element. In reporting terrorism for us the key thing is to use language in a way that tells people what happened as clearly as possible. In the language we use, we try not to alienate one party above another. If someone has murdered many people – you just say it: what he or she did, how they did it. We call that terrorism if it is against civilians, if it has a political motive – there is no question. However, when the language gets in the way of the story as in giving people information, or it alienates some part of your audience in favor of another, i.e. making you appear to be a friend of X and an enemy of Y, we try to keep the language neutral, moderate, calm. That should be the approach to journalism.