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Every nation has to raise the standard of media literacy: BBC’s Jamie Angus

Jamie Angus, editorial director of BBC Global News Ltd and deputy director of the BBC World Service Group, said that there is self-censorship in the Indian news market, which is not the case with the BBC because it is not working on a commercial model. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/MintPremium
Jamie Angus, editorial director of BBC Global News Ltd and deputy director of the BBC World Service Group, said that there is self-censorship in the Indian news market, which is not the case with the BBC because it is not working on a commercial model. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint

Jamie Angus on the BBC's focus areas in India, media's role in tackling fake news and how the media, at times, should refrain from covering the US President Donald Trump

New Delhi: Jamie Angus, editorial director of BBC Global News Ltd and deputy director of the BBC World Service Group, wants to focus on the coverage of women, caste and Pakistan in India—three areas where, he believes, there’s a “real gap" in quality news coverage. Angus, who was in Delhi recently, is keen to build a loyal consumer base for the broadcaster’s regional language digital services on the basis of such special coverage.

The public broadcaster of the UK had recently launched digital news services in four new Indian languages—Telugu, Marathi, Punjabi and Gujarati (in addition to Hindi, Tamil and English). Globally, the BBC operates in close to 40 languages.

In an interview, Angus talks about the BBC’s focus areas in India, media’s role in tackling fake news and how the media, at times, should refrain from covering the US President Donald Trump. Edited excerpts:

With the four new digital channels that BBC has launched here, how do you plan to approach the coverage?

We are still evaluating and assessing the kind of content that people like. The response, so far, has been very positive. We are trying to establish ourselves in the language market. What we really want to do is build loyalty; we want the audience to return to BBC’s digital content several times a week and not just once or twice.

Do you have any specific focus areas for India?

First of all, independent and quality coverage of international news is a priority. Second, we tend to cover stories where local and national media are not providing good enough coverage. We have a specific agenda in such cases like economic situation of women or caste system.

There is self-censorship in the Indian news market, which is not the case with the BBC because we are not working on a commercial model. We don’t have to hold ourselves back and we can be more frank and more engaging around issues. In India, there is a real gap in the market for high quality international news coverage.

Could you elaborate?

Take the case of coverage of Pakistan. When we surveyed local markets in India, we discovered a real gap in the quality coverage of Pakistan because some national news media here either have an agenda or their coverage is not as complete as the BBC’s. We have a very extensive news gathering operation in Pakistan and a Hindi correspondent in Islamabad. We are respectful of the national market but we don’t have to self-censor ourselves in reportage.

Which medium is driving growth for you?

In the long term, we see ourselves transitioning towards digital. At the same time, I am also interested in the durability of television because it is really difficult to make a big brand impact without television. TV helps you build presence in a market, while the advantage of digital is that the cost of publishing is low (much lower than TV). However, the brand strength comes from both.

Globally, BBC World News channel posted 12% audience growth last year and is now reaching almost a 100 million people a week across the world. There is something aspirational about television. In the next five-ten years, I see international TV news channels still present in the market.

Where is the future of digital, in advertising or behind a paywall?

There will be a role for both models because some providers will always want to go for reach. Paywall revenue model is not right for every provider. For example, BBC is unlikely to go behind a paywall because we see scale and reach as very important to our mission, even in the commercial business.

If you have a very clearly defined niche product, you can do well behind a paywall. Otherwise, it can be difficult. News business is tough because the appeal of advertising around news will never be as great as the appeal of advertising around sports or entertainment. So, we have developed our own branded content division for making advertising content for our clients.

How does BBC plan to tackle fake news?

The benefit of digital publishing is also its weakness: anyone can do it and at a very low cost. That is where a trusted news brand really matters. What we have done in the last one year is reality check strands, which is our way of fact checking the stories.

Going forward, brands like the BBC will have to continue to remind audiences that there is an important need of media literacy. Every nation has to raise standards of media literacy so that people don’t share content they are not sure of. Digital news is very sensitive to people sharing content and that’s how fake news spreads. There is a real responsibility on publishers and users not to share things that they don’t trust.

OfCom in UK looks into everything from licensing to policies and competition. Do you think other countries need a regulator like OfCom?

To be honest, I don’t know India’s regulatory framework in detail but effective media regulation can help tackle fake news

While there can be a fake news problem in the UK, it is not acute as it can be in other countries where fake news can genuinely endanger lives. At times, fake news can have real world consequences; we see that repeatedly in South Asia. I can’t speak for India in detail but I think a strong OfCom and a strong industry self-regulation in the UK keeps fake news at a minimum.

Over the last few years, many countries including the UK have slipped in the World Press Freedom Index. Have attacks on press freedom increased in recent years?

Strong and stable democracies tend to build a clear separation between press ownership and political interferences, and a strong regulation. No nation is perfect and can go up and down a little bit. For countries to grow economically and to be politically stable, there needs to be a clear separation between a trustworthy independent media and politics.

In countries which are struggling with that, it is very easy for the press to get caught up in national politics, which doesn’t tend to drive quality and accurate news coverage.

What is it like doing journalism at a time when global leaders are constantly pulling up news publications for fake news on social media?

What is happening in America has become a bit of a soap opera and is constantly being compared to the nature of fake news and independent media challenges in other countries. What really worries me is when national media doesn’t have the strength and resilience to stand up to political pressures.

The shithole story (the US President Donald Trump reportedly had described Haiti, El Salvador and unspecified African countries as shitholes in an Oval Office meeting with US senators) was a brilliant story but it probably didn’t have to be the lead all day, all around the globe.

There are great stories coming from America every day and we almost have to stop ourselves from covering those. We spend 90% of our time talking about the US, which we should be spending on better and more significant stories. There are days when we have done a Trump story which we didn’t need to; the right thing to do there is hold ourselves back and focus on more important stories. 

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