Running a global news channel watched by hundreds of millions of people is challenging at the best of times. But taking up the role in the throes of a pandemic—faced with navigating nationwide lockdowns, travel restrictions, a misinformation crisis and a stricter media environment—is not for the faint of heart.
"Challenge is the word," Liz Gibbons tells Campaign. "When I took over running the news side of BBC World News it was right at the beginning of the pandemic, so we were having to quite radically, quite rapidly change our workflows to accommodate the fact that we had fewer people able to come into the building."
Gibbons was appointed head of news for BBC World News in May 2020. She was previously editor of the Victoria Derbyshire current affairs programme, which was axed at the beginning of 2020 as part of cost-cutting measures at the BBC. Gibbons has worked for the news organisation for nearly 12 years in an editing and commissioning capacity.
Thrust into running a global news network broadcast in over 200 countries and territories—many of which had been plunged into lockdown—Gibbon's immediate priority was to streamline operations and lean more heavily on technology to broadcast from home.
"We took some of our programmes off the air and we pulled [resource] together with the domestic news channel where we felt we could," she says. "We managed to adapt extremely quickly, I think, in terms of the way that we were able to allow producers to use technology in their living rooms and spare bedrooms to get things on the air that we've never even tried before. We had presenters presenting certain programmes from home, and we became much much more reliant on technologies like Zoom and Skype to get interviewees on air."
While presenting from a living room and conducting interviews over Zoom is a far cry from the studio setting synonymous with news channels, Gibbons believes this evolution of news broadcasting has increased the quality and quantity of interviews on BBC World News, which she intends to sustain.
"The use of technology to get a broad range of interviewees on the air—that's something that will stay. The people that we ask to come on the air feel a lot more confident with the technologies that allow them to speak to us from their living room, more so than they did before," she says.
Despite a significant shift in the way news has been presented in the past year, the BBC's audience figures haven't been negatively impacted. In fact, it reached 112 million global viewers per week last year, its most ever, according to the BBC’s 2020 Global Audience Measure. During the height of the pandemic, BBC World News was available in over 500 million homes worldwide.
"I'm incredibly proud of our audience figures, and that they haven't diminished despite the fact that we've obviously had to adapt hugely to the set of circumstances we're in whilst bringing people the most important news story of their lives," says Gibbons.
If it was able to pull in record audiences while presenting and conducting interviews from home, is there still a need for the high-quality studio format?
"I think the way that we all consume digital media now has changed our expectation of what is normal and what kind of news we think we can expect in the way it's presented," says Gibbons. "I think it's going to be a mixed economy for a very long time to be honest. But in terms of the broader future, I think there is still absolutely a role for 24-hour rolling news coverage, and there's still very much a role for a presenter to guide people through news coverage in a way that perhaps people might have thought was on its way out."
In a similar vein, while digital is increasingly informing the way the BBC sources and presents news, for Gibbons this does not spell the end for linear TV.
"We're in a multimedia newsroom now—all of our reporters are expected to be able to file across radio, TV and online, so everybody is very aware of the kind of requirements of those different mediums. Obviously digital audiences are growing, and our digital product is absolutely bound to be at the forefront of what we do in the future."
The BBC's online distribution exceeds its TV channel—BBC.com had 122 million unique browsers in February, and collected 1 billion page views and 29 million video views. In 2020, BBC sites witnessed more growth in APAC than anywhere else in the world with a significant increase of 48% unique visitors throughout the year. The BBC was named the number one international news website in APAC for the fourth straight quarter in November 2020, posting 41% year-on-year growth in unique visitors.
As a consequence, Gibbons says many of BBC World News' programmes are produced with an online audience in mind, enabling the material to be easily clipped for website and social distribution.
But Gibbons points out that in parts of the world where internet penetration is lacking, including in Asia's developing markets, people continue to rely on linear TV to consume news.
"While you might assume that the shift towards more digital consumption of news is a bad thing for more traditional forms of media, I really don't think that's the case. I think it's probably because everyone's just consuming more in different ways," she says. BBC World News recently celebrated its 30th anniversary as a linear news channel.
While Zoom interviews are expected to be a permanent fixture in news channels once Covid has subsided, other measures news organisations have been forced to take will be temporary, Gibbons believes. Especially their ability to deploy reporters abroad.
"We do want to be able to be in a position to deploy people to the same degree as we did before, it's not ideal that we haven’t been able to do that," she says. "But we have adapted extremely well, because we have such a wide network of correspondents and reporters across all of our international output—we have more journalists in more countries than any other international broadcaster."
The BBC was unable to send the same number of journalists to cover the 2020 US election as it had in past elections, for example. "We managed to find ways to carry on serving our audiences with existing staffing and using technologies," says Gibbons.
User generated content "has been a massive part of what we do journalistically for some time", Gibbons says, and has aided the BBC's breaking news coverage in the past year. But it certainly doesn't substitute on-ground reporting.
While Gibbons is proud of the way BBC World News has adapted to the circumstances of Covid, she believes it is the BBC's reputation for impartiality, more than its innovation, that has sustained it through the past year, as misinformation and political polarisation has exposed the importance of trusted, balanced news.
"[Covid has] been a huge news story and our reputation for trusted and balanced news that isn't influenced by external factors and governments is probably what's drawn people to us in this extraordinary time," she suggests.
Against this backdrop, the BBC has invested in several initiatives to position itself as a bastion of truth. It set up its Reality Check team to debunk fake news in 2017, it has a disinformation unit, and it is part of The Trusted News Initiative (TNI) coalition of publishers, which last year tackled election-related fake news and the spread of harmful vaccine disinformation.
"We're in an age as we all know of disinformation, misinformation. We know that some people are attracted to news that bolsters their own worldview," she says. "There's a lot of evidence to suggest that many audiences come to us for the absolute opposite reason—they know that they are going to get a clear and balanced and impartial view of the biggest stories of the world. It has never been more important to have the BBC, within the mix of international media outlets, flying the flag for impartiality and independence and freedom from influence by governments or others."
Misinformation isn't the only threat to news that has intensified over the past year. As governments have attempted to control the narrative on Covid, news organisations have faced stricter controls in their ability to access and report on stories. In tandem, politicans have weaponised the spread of misinformation to sow doubt in trusted news.
A stark example of this is in China, where the press has faced detainment and expulsion for reporting on Covid and the alleged human rights abuses against Uyghur Muslims in the Xinjiang region, in particular. At least 18 journalists were expelled from the country in 2020, including reporters from the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal, for what Chinese state media described "biased" coverage. In February, BBC World News was blocked from broadcasting following the publication of a BBC report that detailed how women in Xinjiang’s internment camps for Uyghurs were subject to rape, sexual abuse and torture. And just last week, the BBC's Beijing correspondent John Sudworth left China after sustaining "months of personal attacks" from state media and government officials over the news organisation's reporting.
"We were very disappointed by the decision the Chinese authorities took to ban BBC World News from broadcasting. We very much take the view that we want our services to be available wherever and that's absolutely at the core of what we do," says Gibbons.
But China isn't the only market putting pressure on the press. "That shift in the landscape of news reporting isn't specific to Asia. The BBC’s mission and values just become more front and centre than they are normally in circumstances like this, which is that we report the truth without fear and favour and we get to the bottom of stories," says Gibbons.
"Obviously people will disagree with what we do, and sometimes get cross with what we do, but that is absolutely central to our mission and it will continue to be regardless of the attempts to influence us, which have been there for many years and will continue," the head of news concludes.