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In Good Company

In Good Company: Truth in the age of fake news

Fake news is good news for quality journalism, says BBC Global News' CEO, as audiences seek out reliable sources

Mr Jim Egan, chief executive of BBC Global News, tells this story of an encounter with US Homeland Security at New York's JFK International Airport last December. Arriving at the top of a long line, he is confronted by a humourless immigration official who gruffly asks where he is from and what he does.

Just when Mr Egan thought things were getting awkward, the officer stares down and says: "BBC? You are the guys who don't make up the news, right?"

If your product can win the respect of dour immigration officials in America, something must be going right at the media company. But then that is the old-fashioned way of delivering news - a combination of accuracy, balance and flair - and the BBC has always been good at it.

These are times when the talk is of the post-truth age, short attention spans and audiences that look for endorsement of their biases rather than balanced views. So why would people be turning to "Auntie Beeb"?

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If anything, things seem to be going the other way at BBC Global where the weekly audience size jumped from 108 million in 2015/16 to 121 million in 2016/17.

A lot of that no doubt is the avalanche of news over the year including Brexit, multiple terror attacks around the world, the crisis on the Korean peninsula and national polls in the United States and elsewhere. At the same time, there has also been no shortage of choices to access the news.

"It has been an exhilarating and exhausting year for journalists and audiences have been engaged in that," acknowledges Mr Egan. "I'm increasingly with the view that fake news has actually been really good news for quality journalism.


Though audiences have no shortage of choices to access the news, Mr Jim Egan, chief executive of BBC Global News, believes "increasingly there is a flight to quality, that people do want to have a sense of who they can believe, where they can get a sense of balance, where they can get some slow news but get behind the scenes". ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

  • Fast facts

  • THE CEO

    Chief executive at BBC Global News since September 2012, Mr Jim Egan is 48 years old.

    Prior to that, he was director of strategy and distribution for BBC Global from October 2007. From 2003 to 2007, he was strategy director at Ofcom, the broadcasting regulator.

    He has also worked at BSkyB and as a consultant with PricewaterhouseCoopers.

    Mr Egan has a Bachelor of Arts from Oxford and a Master of Arts in international relations from Johns Hopkins University.

    He is married, is the father of three boys and a girl, and plays guitar in a rock band in his spare time.

    THE COMPANY

    BBC Global News operates the BBC's two commercially funded international news services: BBC World News, the 24-hour global news television channel, and the digital platform bbc.com (including the bbc.com website, a News app, and a Sport app).

    BBC Global News reaches 121 million people a week, with television channel BBC World News accounting for 99 million and 22 million coming from online traffic to its website.

    BBC Global has a mandate to be "commercially efficient" or break even. Last week, it reported a profit of £2 million (S$3.5 million) for the 2016/17 year.

YOUNG AND HUNGRY FOR NEWS

There is a sense now that there are things at stake, things worth fighting for. People are taking part in demonstrations and protests in a way that had fallen out of fashion. I'm encouraged and quite excited by the way that the young in many parts of the world are re-engaged in politics and in news as well.

MR JIM EGAN, CEO of BBC Global News.

"My sense is increasingly there is a flight to quality, that people do want to have a sense of who they can believe, where they can get a sense of balance, where they can get some slow news but get behind the scenes."

Not surprisingly, the US has seen strong audience growth. The BBC's deep strategic alliance with AMC, the entity behind programmes such as Mad Men and The Walking Dead, has helped push the availability of BBC World News in that market.

Another notable improvement is the Asia-Pacific market, particularly countries such as India, Malaysia and Indonesia. BBC audiences have jumped lately in these parts.

A further trend that will warm the hearts of every media manager is that there is little sign that the market is poised to shrink or that the young, particularly the so-called "millennials" of the 18-35 age group, will switch away from news.

"There is a sense now that there are things at stake, things worth fighting for," he says, referring to the US and Europe, particularly. "People are taking part in demonstrations and protests in a way that had fallen out of fashion. I'm encouraged and quite excited by the way that the young in many parts of the world are re-engaged in politics and in news as well."

From a corporate point of view, he says, the central challenge is to monetise this demand for high quality, reliable news. As that endeavour progresses, some trends are coming into view. BBC Global, which revealed a profit of £2 million (S$3.5 million) - it ploughs back most of its earnings into product enhancement - recently saw digital advertising overtake revenue from television commercials.

Mr Egan is fortunate that his mandate is only to make BBC Global a self-sustaining entity. Others, who have a clear profit motive, aren't as fortunate. Even in some reputed media organisations that were careful to separate editorial and business - "church and state" they called it - a blurring of the lines is being seen. Surely, the BBC cannot be unaffected by the trends?

"There is a much closer relationship between the editorial commissioners, the people working in the newsroom and the sales team than ever been before," Mr Egan concedes. "Of course it's carefully navigated and appropriate separation is maintained."

Content marketing and branded content are no longer taboo phrases inside the corporation. Of course, it isn't as blatant as Pierce Brosnan driving BMW cars in a Bond movie, eschewing the Aston Martins that are the iconic spy character's favoured wheels.

But you get the picture.

Indeed, two years ago it launched BBC StoryWorks, its own creative agency for clients. StoryWorks, which has seen strong growth in its Singapore-based operations, now accounts for between a third and 40 per cent of the advertising work displayed on its channels.

"We are very careful and deliberate about badging things as 'partner content' or 'sponsored content', so the audience knows instantly that it's not the same as content coming from the newsroom," says Mr Egan. "And also we have a high quality threshold for that stuff. So the rule of thumb is: 'If we wouldn't have run this story anyway, should we be running it just because it's coming from an advertising partner?'"

South-east Asia is proving one of the fastest-growing advertising markets for the BBC. Interestingly, even as access to its products is constrained within China, the advertising flow from the mainland is strong.

"A growing number of Chinese brands are looking to move beyond the national market in areas like aviation, tourism, consumer electronics and so on," he explains. "BBC World News is a good platform for them to do that because we can offer them significant audiences in Europe, the US and sub-Saharan Africa."

Looking ahead, the big strategic questions it's facing is how to get the relationship with social media platforms such as Facebook correct.

The BBC, he says, is not attempting to beat Facebook or Google, both of which are attracting top advertising dollars. Rather, it acknowledges the role these companies play and tries to find a way to cooperate in a way that is financially viable.

There is also the other common enough dilemma faced by newsrooms around the world: Will audiences accept paying a fee for the quality journalism they receive? At the BBC, various options are being considered, including membership-type schemes and pay-as-you-go models.

"Let's be very clear: The BBC is not going to announce a paywall. The work we've done suggests that the reduction in audience we would likely experience if we put up a hard paywall would not be offset by the incremental income we might generate," he says.

Countries in Africa, particularly Nigeria, have also seen strong audience growth for BBC. I asked Mr Egan if the increasingly obvious ethnic diversity of BBC newscasters - the Uganda-born Alan Kasujja, a presenter on Newsday, is one example- had anything to do with it.

The mix of accents has had an uneven response, some happy that the BBC no longer seemed to speak just for Londoners and for south-east England, and others who complain that the news is often difficult to follow.

Mr Egan says while diversity is indeed a major theme in current corporate life, the BBC has been familiar with it since 1932, when it started international broadcasting. Still, the fact that everyone's now housed in one building does make a difference because you can instantly summon up expert voices when there is a news break. The bigger challenge, and debate, is on the need for a diversity of mindsets.

"If all of us bought into the same liberal, progressive kind of mindset and worldview, do you really have diversity? That's probably a more subtle but interesting challenge: Did you miss what was going on in the Brexit vote and the rise of Trump because you were sitting in your ivory towers?"

Having previously served with the Office of Communications (Ofcom), the British regulator for the broadcasting and telecommunications industry, I wonder if the stint in government had circumscribed his thinking in any way.

Mr Egan firmly denies it. Instead, he credits the Ofcom stint with giving him the opportunity to observe the development of the media industry and watching a certain fusing of telecom operators and media networks for content and distribution.

"Let's face it, there are many things that the UK screwed up over the years, but Ofcom's regulatory approach has actually been quite forward-thinking," he says.

Married to an investment banker who suspended her career to look after their four children, including a pair of twins, the well-muscled Mr Egan says he likes to play guitar with a band in his spare time.

I asked him how he'd like his stint as CEO of BBC Global News to be remembered. Only 48 years of age and with years to go before retirement, he seemed a bit startled by the question.

"I suppose I would like to be remembered as someone who ran the business effectively but had a keen understanding of what the BBC was really about," he responded.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 23, 2017, with the headline 'Truth in the age of fake news'. Print Edition | Subscribe