Jamie Angus, Deputy Director of BBC World Service Group and Editorial Director of BBC Global News, talks to Sunil Kumar Singh about the media behemoth’s future strategy in the Middle East.
Tell us briefly about your role at the BBC. How do you strike the right balance between editorial and commercial interests?
Outside the UK, the BBC is run as a heavily commercialised entity under an umbrella company called Global News Limited, of which I’m the Editorial Director. This enables us to run a wholly commercial operation through our English language website and the world news TV channel in English.
Apart from the Editorial Director of a commercially successful venture outside the UK, I’m also the Deputy Director of the BBC World Service Group, which runs traditional free-to-air programming, such as world service English and Arabic radio, and the Arabic news channel.
As these are global services that are also broadcast in the UK, the objective has been not to make them primarily a commercial venture. This is why, driven by our commitment to impartial news content not influenced by commercial interests especially inside the UK, BBC World Service doesn’t carry any advertising.
BBC therefore is a strange mix of a public service as well as a commercial entity, with a public service mission to provide high-quality international news to audiences wherever they are and whatever platform they use.
In terms of your programming for UK viewers, does the BBC have any funding support from the British government?
All through its history, the BBC has received government funding for its international world service operations. However, the government never had editorial oversight over the BBC. So unlike other state broadcasters, at the BBC, there is a complete separation between the editorial and content liberty and the state funding, and that continues to this day.
That is because the BBC values its independence more than anything else, because our credibility as an international broadcaster relies on our audiences understanding that we are truly independent from anyone, including the British government.
What has been the perception of the Arab region among your viewers?
There is a need for the UK audiences to be better informed about the region and that’s one of the reasons why we’re very proud to have a regional language service in the form of Arabic TV and a Persian station in Iran, which we manage through our Middle East hub at Jerusalem.
This puts us at the forefront in terms of a deeper understanding of the Arabic world, which informs the coverage for the people in the UK.
The instability and geopolitical tensions in the region as well as globally bring to the fore the critically important question of how we, as a broadcaster, interpret the developments of this culturally sensitive region to our UK and global audiences.
The realisation of this big responsibility bestows upon the BBC a significant role in getting not only the facts but the interpretation of these facts right as well.
The BBC is investing heavily in the Middle East as part of its 2020 expansion, perhaps the biggest for the organisation since the 1940s. Can you share more details about this?
As part of our state support, we’ve got a funding boost from the government to expand our existing range of language services from the existing 30 to approximately 41 languages, in a bid to connect with more of our viewers.
As regards the Arabic services, most of our Arabic content is currently produced in the UK. However, we’re expanding our Arabic radio services too in response to the long-standing demand of our audience.
We have already launched regional Arabic radio services focusing on the Maghreb and Gulf operations, enabling our subscribers to have access to more Gulf-specific news. In early 2018, we’re planning to expand our Arabic TV offering as well.
What specific marketing strategies do you have in line with your expansion plans?
One of the priority areas we’re working on is to target young audiences. Keeping this in mind, we’ve launched a programme called “BBC Trending” for BBC Arabic, which looks at the trending social media stories around the world.
We are also trying to align the BBC Arabic TV be more in line with the online content.
Having said that, our attention to the younger demographic doesn’t mean we’re ignoring the older and more traditional audiences for Arabic content. They will remain important to us.
However, any broadcaster has to continue to build new audiences and that’s what we’re doing.
If your audiences were to choose between TV and online, which one do you think they would go for?
Despite the growing digital and online content, the largest chunk of our audience still comes from our TV services.
In fact, our English international TV audience and the world news audience base is growing in the region. Globally, the TV audience for BBC world news has gone up by 12 per cent in the last year.
Five years ago, it would have been easier to assume that digital was going to kill TV news stations. But, on the contrary, it really hasn’t. I believe there’ll still be a huge appetite for TV news and, though digital is growing alongside it’s not going to cannibalise the TV audience. In a nutshell, there’s room to grow for both the segments.
There are a lot of Arabic channels here catering to their captive audiences. Where do you find your niche? Where does the BBC fit?
Our pitch has been clearly international, giving our audience the highest-quality international news coverage. And although we offer some customised, region-focussed content; we don’t see ourselves in competition with national networks.
What has been your stance – do you support the Arab point of view and take it to your global audience? Or do you bring a Western viewpoint to the Middle East audience?
That’s a really good question. So, certainly not the latter and we don’t see ourselves as being a sort of broadcast arm of the UK government. We’re not about representing “Western views” to the Middle East audiences either.
We think the audiences who know and value the BBC in this region understand that our premium quality offer is about our independence. And independence doesn’t mean it’s a Western viewpoint; it just means independent, high-quality content – online or TV.
What should be at the core of the mar- keting strategy of any media company in the region?
For any media title or channel to succeed in this region or anywhere, it’s crucial for it to know its brand value in the market. If you do not have a unique selling point, or if you don’t have a clear value proposition in the marketplace, it becomes quite dif cult to compete.
That’s why, at the BBC, we’ve always made sure to focus on our USP and are quite optimistic of our growth in the region and globally. Driven by our commitment, we have set a target of reaching 500 million people a week by 2022, the centenary year of the BBC.
Media organisations, which are really struggling, are the ones too indistinct from their competitor and not sufficiently scalable to survive.
Given issues such as click-bait, brand safety and ad fraud, how do you think digital media should brace for the emerging challenges coming its way?
Brands or advertisers have a big role to play in sorting the challenges that digital media is facing. They will have to take a conscious decision about where they place their ads online.
We have seen some examples of how the quality of ads is dropping out of the market, primarily because the commercial model is not working well. So it’s not just the quantity; the quality of the content and the brand’s ethical quotient also matter when it comes to digital media.
This generates from the growing realisation that the number of clicks and impressions do not mean everything in digital media. To a large extent, this has triggered developments such as fake news, click-bait and ad fraud.
In many cases, relying purely on the plain, raw number of ad clicks has back red for many brands. Instead, there is an urgent need for a discussion on how to value quality clicks and engagement, instead of paid clicks.
The interview appeared in the Dec 2017-Feb 2018 issue of Gulf Marketing Review.