Jim Egan, CEO – BBC Global News Ltd, was in Mumbai to address FICCI Frames 2019, and we caught up with him for The Master’s Voice, MediaBrief.com’s new Podcast series. Egan spoke about his mandate at the BBC, the enduring values of the news organization, how it is constantly on high alert to sustain accurate, impartial and balanced journalism. Egan also spoke of the news space in India, and on how TRAI’s New Tariff Order has been impacting the BBC so far. So, here’s Jim Egan in conversation with Pavan R Chawla
“Turning on the TV news in India and scrolling through the channels can be quite an exhausting experience, you know … they are busy channels, often quite voluble ones, and you know that’s clearly what audiences like, and, you know, that’s the practice and it’s become the established norms. I sometimes look at our channel scrolling up and down through the EPG and I think ‘Oh my goodness you know it’s a bit empty here, it’s a bit barren, and are things moving a bit slowly?’ But that’s the way we’ve chosen to run our channel and it’s different to many of the Indian channels here and perhaps not to everybody’s taste, but that’s the particular view that we have”
Jim Egan on MediaBrief’s Podcast – Trasnscript
Introduction: Jim Egan has been leading BBC Global News Ltd for close to seven years as Chief Executive Officer, and is responsible for leading the BBC’s commercially-funded news business with P&L reponsibility for a £100m turnover and a weekly audience of 95 million people globally. BBC Global News Ltd operates the BBC World News channel and bbc.com/news, the BBC’s international news website. Before becoming CEO, Jim was Director Strategy & Distribution for five years at BBC Global News, setting and implementing strategy for the BBC’s international news, current affairs and sports content in 28 languages, and for its distribution to audiences of more than 250 million people worldwide.
Jim is one of the most reputed industry veterans globally, with more than 20 years of illustrious experience, which includes four years as Ofcom’s first Strategy Director and part of the launch team. Jim led on broadcasting policy development and UK’s digital switchover process. He also served as specialist adviser to Secretary of State for Culture, Media & Sport. Jim has also been with BSkyB for 2 years, and with PWC as Principal Consultant for seven years before that.
So Jim’s a wonderful industry veteran who very generously consented to being on mediabrief.com for our The Master’s Voice Podcast series. I met him at FICCI Frames 2019 in Mumbai, and now here he is, on MediaBrief.com’s The Master’s Voice Podcast series.
I’m Pavan R Chawla, and let’s go straight into the conversation with Jim Egan, Chief Executive Officer of BBC Global News Limited.
Jim, as CEO of BBC Global News Ltd, what are your primary mandates?
Making the numbers add up. It’s a fascinating sector to work in. It is a hackneyed term but it’s a genuine privilege to represent the BBC, particularly internationally. It is an organisation which is widely known and also generates a certain amount of respect in certain parts of the world. We’re not we’re not loved everywhere, I should stress that and there are many markets where actually we have quite a difficult time, but nevertheless, running the commercial news subsidiary, my main job is to try to ensure that we do so in a way which at least breaks even and hopefully generates a little bit of a surplus in a really fast moving media landscape — not just here in India but right around the world.
But it’s something which pays for itself — just about, commercially, but of course is also something that we think of the BBC is… very important, and to be working in and around news at such an unprecedented time of turbulence but also interest in national and international events has an enduring appeal for me.
The Master’s Voice – MediaBrief Podcast audio is also on YouTube:
What are the most cherished — sacrosanct if you will — values and principles of the BBC as a news organization?
To answer that… we talk about impartiality, independence, accuracy, balance — those sorts of things which you might regard as being very predictable really, and they’re certainly old values — they’re things that the BBC starting writing down in the 1920s and 30s, but I think we’re not embarrassed about that but we regard those as enduring values of journalism.
They’re certainly not unique to the BBC; lots of other organisations pursue those values, but I think what’s important about them, as people fret about fake news and disinformation and so on, is that we stay true to those values, we don’t lose sight of them, and never regard them as old-fashioned or legacy or outdated actually — they’re even more important perhaps in 2019 they’ve ever been.
Yes, they are timeless, aren’t they? Some of the major concern areas in the space of news and the society that it serves are, to my mind, fake news, hate speech, election interference and harassment – in fact Facebook has been receiving enormous flak and censure for these on its various platforms. At the BBC, what do you see as the biggest concern areas and how do you work to ensure that your news teams don’t end up abetting them innocently?
I think the primary focus for the BBC is for us to continue doing what we’ve always been doing, as I hinted in my in my previous answer. So although we are concerned about fake news, I think our focus is more on ensuring the BBC continues to do real news, and whether that content appears on the BBC’s own outlets or on Facebook or Google or Twitter… that we’re sticking to those values of journalism and that we are being a source of news information that people can trust.
I think we are also as open as we can be in recognizing that the BBC, like every other news organization, isn’t right 100% of the time, and we do make mistakes; I think that’s inevitable for any journalistic organization that is doing serious work and it’s important for us to own up to those mistakes and to concede that they have been made when they occur. But we are concerned about fake news as any serious news organization, as any citizen, should be because it’s a global phenomenon that’s really… it’s a term that’s entered just everyday language having really not been recognized until three or three or four years ago. It’s something that we see playing out in every market around the world, particularly at election time.
It is a serious issue, and we’ve got big investigations underway including criminal investigations in the UK about what happened during the referendum in 2016 where the decision was taken for the UK to leave the EU — big concerns about funding, ownership, sources of information and also the way in which that information was targeted.
So it’s a global phenomenon – something that we’re seeing, and here in India, as the election campaign gathers speed, we are trying to do a small number of practical things to make a positive difference to that.
I’m sure it’s innate to everybody at the BBC to be careful about the news they cover and to make sure that it’s completely vetted (for accuracy and authenticity). Do you also have a process — I mean like a reporter files copy and the desk looks at it for the journalistic news-desk thing. Do you also have something now which is akin to a news desk but which actually vets the news for accuracy? Is that a process…?
Much of that process is a process that’s existed for decades, right… it hasn’t really changed very very much, and that’s something that our trainee journalists who join the BBC are schooled in. They go through a program, we have a 300-page set of editorial guidelines which are published on the web, we also have an area of our website which talks about why you can trust the BBC.
Now, people have different views on whether or not they may be able to trust the BBC, and we’re under a huge amount of pressure in the UK, particularly because we’re going through such a hotly contested political period right now. So there are lots of pockets whether it’s in the UK or elsewhere around the world who don’t necessarily buy the argument that the BBC is trustworthy and lives up to the highest news values, but it’s something which the organisation has kind of professional practice in. There’s a culture at the BBC which actually to a large degree goes unspoken.
So I was fascinated when I joined the BBC twelve years ago that nobody ever talks about their own political views and preferences, and it’s not as a consequence of someone saying to you on day one ‘never speak about these things’; it just becomes very evident as soon as you’ve been in the building for an hour or two that certain things are simply not done.
And so I think it’s a combination of that practice and also that culture that hopefully means that we can sustain journalism which is largely accurate, wholly impartial, balanced, and so on despite the turbulence for everything that’s happening right now.
How do you see the news space in India Jim – in terms of the quality editorially and on ethics etcetera, and on the business side of things?
I’m very careful not to give ignorant or partially informed views on the media sector anywhere where we work. I will say that turning on the TV news in India and scrolling through the channels can be quite an exhausting experience, you know … they are busy channels, often quite voluble ones, and you know that’s clearly what audiences like, and, you know, that’s the practice and it’s become the established norms.
I sometimes look at our channel scrolling up and down through the EPG and I think ‘Oh my goodness you know it’s a bit empty here, it’s a bit barren, and are things moving a bit slowly?’ But that’s the way we’ve chosen to run our channel and it’s different to many of the Indian channels here and perhaps not to everybody’s taste, but that’s the particular view that we have.
But it’s a market that’s vibrant in every sense — not just editorially but also financially. It’s growing at a rate that you don’t see in many other places around the world certainly not in big markets to be seeing advertising rates of 13, 14, 15 percent going up year-on-year.
So it’s one that’s also full of opportunity and potential and we’re very happy to play a small but hopefully meaningful part here in the Indian landscape and to see our position growing.
And now with the elections around the corner it’s going to get far more voluble, right?
It’s inevitable I suppose. The election is taking place, it’s a huge democratic exercise unlike anything we see anywhere else in the world. So that sort of electoral event is something that we try to portray and describe to our audiences outside India if you don’t understand India as well. It’s a huge amount at stake — both economically and also in terms of national and regional security, of course. So the focus of the world’s attention will be on India in the next couple of months and we’ll be doing our best to tell that story.
It is … important for us that in India we are paid for our carriage. We do not pay for carriage — that’s not something that’s sort of the result of strategic brilliance and insight; we simply couldn’t afford to buy carriage here in India. So our position has always been that we’re only going to be carried if we are paid for, and we’re delighted that we’re able to sustain that
Jim, most news channels in India are in the red. What would you say a not-so-successful news channel which may be actually pretty good editorially, needs to do to get out of the red here?
Well, that’s an issue I have a huge amount of sympathy with, because BBC World News and BBCdotcom as your readers and followers may know is solely commercially funded so we don’t receive any public funding ourselves. And if you want to run a high-quality editorial outlet — particularly a news channel — you know it’s an expensive game, you have a lot of fixed cost in the business, not very much of it is variable, and you have huge and increasing uncertainty about revenue sources even in a market like India which is growing so quickly, but not all of the growth is going towards news, not all of the growth is going towards TV channels within news and so on.
We’ve found in recent years diversifying revenue and building out an online presence where there has been more growth has been successful for us.
But it is also important for us that in India we are paid for our carriage. We do not pay for carriage — that’s not something that’s sort of the result of strategic brilliance and insight; we simply couldn’t afford to buy carriage here in India. So our position has always been that we’re only going to be carried if we are paid for, and we’re delighted that we’re able to sustain that.
It’s the quality and the brilliance of your channels and their proposition…
You’re very kind.
Jim, how has the new tariff order impacted you. Or do you think it’s too early to say?
You’ve stolen my answer. I think we were very concerned about how that might play out because the BBC is basically a standalone channel here and you know we’re an international channel in the English language, you know we are somewhat marginal on the landscape.
So things are still settling down but so far we are a bit more optimistic about how it may play out actually — certainly compared to originally (when) we were deeply concerned about what it may mean for us, but so far, things seem to be going not too badly.
What do you see the new TRAI tariff order doing to the television industry in India?
Impossible to answer at this stage. I think we’re only at the dawn of that, but speaking with some of the operators here, in India, people are certainly quite concerned about what the consequences may be. I think we’re also we really don’t know enough yet about what the subscriber reaction is going to be because we’re just at the stage of people moving from their old packs and bouquets to really being in this a la carte world. But it’s a seismic change, I think both for platform operators and also for broadcasters and subscribers themselves.
We’ve seen some similar things else elsewhere but it’s quite rare for such a dramatic change to be happening, but as far as I can tell, players seem to be complying with the new order. Subscribers are starting to get their heads around it, and we’re going to be watching it very closely
Thank you so much, Jim, for that insightful conversation. Thanks for being on MediaBrief.com
Thanks very much for your time today, Pavan. It’s been a pleasure to meet you here in Mumbai. Thanks for your interest in the BBC.