Chapter 5: Public-Commercial Hybridity at BBC News Online
BBC News Online is one of the most popular news websites in the world (Jones and Salter 2011), with enormous credibility in the United Kingdom (Hendy 2013) and overseas, especially in the United States (Bicket and Wall 2009; Thurman 2007). It sits at the heart of the BBC’s broader efforts to respond to the challenges of commercialisation, digitalisation and convergence, whilst remaining mindful of its commitment to public service values (Allan and Thorsen 2010; Thorsen, Allan, and Carter 2010). Yet serious concerns have been raised by Goldsmiths researchers about the ways in which the increased webcentricity of the corporation’s journalism has been shaped by its executives’ privileging of speed, technology and the homogeneity produced by recycling journalistic content (Lee-Wright 2010; Redden and Witschge 2010), now comprising part of a broader shift within the BBC towards marketised values.
My work (Wright 2015) serves to develop this research, as well as that carried out by Phillips into online journalists’ changing sourcing practices (Phillips 2010). This is because my research found that the pressure to increase advertising revenue via the international-facing English-language site (BBCNews.com), together with the cost-cutting carried out before and after the licence fee freeze in 2010 (Hendy 2013; Tumber 2011), began to alter journalists’ approach to sourcing and other forms of production practice. However, traditional Reithian values have not been marginalised by the intrusion of marketised norms. Instead, normative and economic values were found to modify one another via journalists’ deliberative decision-making in ways that prompted journalists to reconstruct their approach to public service journalism.
The cases I examined involved journalists’ use of multimedia provided by non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in the news coverage of Africa. However, in the course of conducting semi-structured interviews with those who made key decisions that shape the production of the two media items in question (Copnall and Hegarty 2011; Crowley and Fleming 20101), it became clear that this relatively narrowly focused study had significant implications for the study of the corporation’s broader engagement in different forms of public-commercial hybridity (Born 2004; Steemers 1999, 2005). In particular, it raises serious questions about the extent to which these internal and external changes are eroding the organisational policies and structures put in place historically by senior BBC executives to separate commercial from editorial decision-making.
An ‘Absolute Divide between Church and State’?
In a rarely granted interview, Mark Byford, the former deputy director general of the BBC, explained that BBC News Online was not initially conceptualised by senior managers as a money-making venture (Byford 2014). However, the rapid increase in the site’s international audience, especially after the bombing of the World Trade Center in 2001 and the London Underground in 2005, led Byford to decide to allow advertising on BBCNews.com (Byford 2014). Although this was legitimised in terms of fairness to licence fee payers, Richard Sambrook, who was the head of Global News at the time, stressed that BBC executives had also hoped that the income raised by BBC News Online would help them pay for the soaring costs of international coverage and for further digital expansion (Sambrook 2014). In particular, he emphasized that executives hoped that advertising revenue would be significant enough to allow them to divert the Foreign Office Grant-in-Aid (which at the time was funding the international-facing section of the website, as well as World Service Radio) to Arabic satellite TV, because the Iraq war had led to this area being ‘a big priority’ for the corporation (Sambrook 2014).
However, Byford was eager that ‘public trust in the authority of the BBC’s journalism’ should not be endangered by perceived threats to journalists’ political impartiality and editorial independence (Byford 2014). Therefore, he tasked Sambrook with chairing a special committee of senior executives, whose responsibility was to establish organisational structures and policies in order to ‘ensure a clear divide’ between editorial and commercial decision-making (Byford 2014). Sambrook spoke rather more frankly about this; he argued that there had been ‘enormous’ internal tensions between the senior journalists at BBC News and the commercial executives at BBC Worldwide, who he said ‘thought they could make a fortune’ from the site but didn’t understand the editorial and political ‘sensitivities’ involved and thus needed formal structures and policies in place to ‘keep them honest’ (Sambrook 2014).
For these reasons, the committee worked with the BBC Trust in order to pass organisational policy that placed the journalists at BBC News firmly in charge of all editorial commissioning, as well as clarifying where adverts could and could not be placed and specifying which kinds of adverts were appropriate (Sambrook 2014). The latter responsibility included banning adverts from NGOs, along with all other ‘political . . . lobby or pressure groups’, following a test case relating to Oxfam (BBC 2009, 10).
Nevertheless, large quantities of NGO-provided photos were found on BBC News Online in 2012. The placement of NGO photos on the site was indirectly shaped by serious changes to the BBC’s political economy: In March 2010, Mark Thompson, then the BBC’s director general, decided to cut the budget for BBC News Online by 25 percent. This was a ‘tactical move’ to try and ward off attacks by the corporation’s commercial rivals and by the pro-market Conservative party, which looked likely to win the general election in May (Franklin 2012, 7). The strategy didn’t work, and the licence fee freeze announced by the new Conservative-led coalition government led to the BBC experiencing a 16 percent drop in income in real terms, compounding the effects of earlier cuts at BBC News Online .
As David Moody, the head of strategy at BBC Worldwide, explained, the revenue generated by advertising placed on BBCNews.com is ‘but a drop in the ocean’ compared to the amount generated by licence fees, but finding ways to increase it became increasingly important to the corporation after 2010 (Moody 2014a). Because of the pressure to raise advertising income, BBC Worldwide began to make some editorial decisions, starting with commercial executives’ engagement in ‘rejigging’ visuals and running orders, in order to ‘represent content so that it is more relevant to international audiences’ (Moody 2014a). Soon this ‘representation’ began to involve BBC Worldwide commissioning ‘supplementary content’ for international audiences, albeit ‘in consultation’ with BBC News (Moody 2014a). This appears to undermine the organisational separation of editorial and commercial decision-making agreed upon historically by Sambrook’s committee, even though Moody maintained that there was still an ‘absolute divide between Church and State’ (Moody 2014a).
The editorial direction taken by BBC Worldwide executives also merits further research, because Moody described his priority as commissioning the kinds of ‘up-beat’ lifestyle features that advertisers would like to ‘associate their brand’ with (Moody 2014a). These included items ‘around Business, around Finance, around Health and Well-being, around Motoring . . . All the things that in their extreme form would be in what The Financial Times publishes in “How to Spend” on a Saturday’ (Moody 2014a).
However, Moody complained that BBC journalists simply didn’t make enough of the kinds of features that would appeal to advertisers seeking to reach those kinds of markets, so he ‘had to’ spend money commissioning these features from ‘the market’ (Moody 2014b). Indeed, he stressed that these kinds of BBC Worldwide–commissioned features now comprise ‘an increasingly large part—often the majority’ of the features on BBC News.com (Moody 2014b).
NGO-Provided Multimedia and Public-Commercial Hybridity
No evidence was found that such commissioning processes shaped the use of NGO-provided multimedia directly. However, the privileging of ‘feel-good’ features that trickled down from senior managers, together with cost-cutting measures designed to stimulate the publication of larger numbers of features via the recycling of other BBC content, was important (Redden and Witschge 2010). The production of the first media item studied involved the incorporation of photos taken by the South Sudanese media collective, Woyee Film and Theatre Ltd, in a feature article (Copnall and Hegarty 2011), and this hinged on the decision-making of Stephanie Hegarty, a World Service journalist tasked with combing the radio station’s English-language output for non-news material suitable for publication online.
Hegarty stressed that her personal views and practices had become more nuanced since gaining more experience in the coverage of Africa and that the BBC’s use of NGO-provided multimedia online was continuing to change rapidly, especially since the Ebola crisis in West Africa (Hegarty 2015). However, at the time of sampling, Hegarty said that senior managers had simply said that the site ‘needed more features’, and she had noticed that positive ‘human interest’ features were particularly warmly received (Hegarty 2012).
Therefore, Hegarty did not see herself as deliberately selecting media items on the basis of their appeal to advertisers. Instead, she described herself as serving other commercial aims (Hegarty 2012), although these also helped make the site more ‘advertiser-friendly’ (Moody 2014a).
Such aims included supplying BBC News Online journalists with immediately appealing ‘human interest’ stories that would be popular with and ‘fun to read’ for audiences (Hegarty 2012; see also Sambrook, Terrington, and Levy 2013), as well as sourcing stories about more unusual actors and places in order to differentiate BBC News Online from its competitors and sourcing large amounts of high-quality, visually appealing material so that the site was immediately striking visually.
All of these considerations shaped Hegarty’s decision to recycle media items about small African collectives and cooperatives, such as the South Sudanese NGO, Woyee Film and Theatre Industry Ltd. An online feature about this NGO formed the basis of the first production case study examined here (Copnall and Hegarty 2011). But the work of the collective had initially been the subject of an arts radio package, composed by the BBC’s Sudan and South Sudan correspondent, James Copnall, so Hegarty said she had much of the editorial material she already needed (Hegarty 2012). Although she did go on to conduct one additional interview herself, she stressed that the interview’s main purpose was to ask permission to use the NGO’s photos, which she had seen displayed on the group’s Facebook site and which were of an unusually high technical quality for an African NGO because of their own focus on media production (Hegarty 2012).
Hegarty relished the opportunity to represent the members of the NGO as adept film-makers, seeing this as striking a blow against stereotypical ‘negative’ and ‘disempowering’ representations of Africans by others (Hegarty 2012). In this way, she argued she was enabling the BBC’s public service journalism to function as a form of Reithian education (Hegarty 2012). However, in her eagerness to prepare a story that would be appealing immediately to the site’s readers, she focused upon the entrepreneurialism and technical expertise of the NGO to such an extent that she inadvertently marginalised its more alternative, communitarian values (Danis 2013).
Nevertheless, using photos provided by a smaller, African NGO was quite unusual at BBC News Online. Joseph Winter, the site’s Africa editor, said that a much more common use of NGO-provided multimedia would be a compilation of photo slideshows using images provided by major international NGOs (INGOs), despite the BBC’s ban on accepting adverts from them (Winter 2013). Yet again, a key consideration here was how to make the site immediately appealing and visually distinctive, although Winter linked this far more explicitly to advertising than Hegarty. As he explained: ‘There has been, if not exactly pressure, then talk of experiments about advertisers, because . . . if there’s a special event coming up then there’s so many adverts around it. And if there’s a special page, then . . . for example, banks operating in South Sudan, you know, the likes of them may like to advertise around that so the page has to look really snazzy’ (Winter 2013).
The lack of many internal photographers at BBC News Online and budgetary constraints therefore drove Winter to use the photographs provided by INGOs, which were able and willing to hire experienced freelance photojournalists whom he ‘could not afford to employ’ himself (Winter 2013). The technical and aesthetic qualities of these photos also meant that such slideshows were often republished in ‘special reports’ of archived material, such as the item on which the second case study was based (Crowley and Fleming 2010). This media text was an audio slideshow about a former child soldier from South Sudan, which incorporated photos taken by a member of staff from Save the Children UK. Although Winter was uncomfortable about repeatedly reinforcing the definitional advantages enjoyed by INGOs in the construction of knowledge about Africa, like Hegarty, he justified his actions according to Reithian ideas about the educative purpose of the BBC’s public service journalism. He claimed that his rapid re-versioning of INGO-provided photos for slideshows enabled him to cope with the loss of one team member in the rounds of cost-cutting that had taken place (Fenton 2010), arguing that then he could focus on ‘the real public service . . . the real journalism’, which he (re)defined as breaking news (Winter 2013).
Yet perhaps the most worrying way in which the use of NGO-provided multimedia functioned in the reconstruction of public service journalism at BBC News Online involved its role in entrenching the promotional culture that shaped journalists’ relationships with each other and with their audiences (Davis 2013). Editorial discussions between colleagues not only had speeded up because of the loss of several BBC News Online journalists, but also had become laden with noticeably commercial norms. For example, Hegarty stressed that she had to pitch re-versioned material that would be immediately appealing to the journalists on the Africa page, because they were so busy that they wouldn’t have the time or energy to engage in more than ‘a quick sell’ (Hegarty 2012).
Likewise, Lucy Fleming, the journalist working with Winter on the Africa page, described herself as ‘pushing’ or ‘selling’ stories to the editors of main news pages, who then ‘sold’ or ‘promoted’ these stories to audiences (Fleming 2012). Fleming then went on to explain that INGO-provided multimedia was particularly useful in such processes, not only because it required little re-versioning (Fenton 2010), but also because INGOs usually had identified saleable events already, as well as stories about saleable individuals that would have significant emotional appeal to audiences (Fleming 2012; see also Davis 2013).
Indeed, Fleming even described a former child soldier, who appeared in the photos provided by Save the Children, as ‘a really easy sell’ (Fleming 2012). What was most interesting about this was the way in which Fleming blended even this heavily marketised approach with Reithian ideals in order to reconstruct her understanding of the normative purpose of public service journalism. She argued that the ‘whole point’ of such promotional processes was to try and get as many BBC News Online readers as possible to click on items about Africa, reasoning that then ‘they should understand at least some of the issues involved’ (Fleming 2012).
Although this study pertained specifically to the use of NGO-provided multimedia in the coverage of Africa provided by BBC News Online, it shows that journalists’ sourcing and other production practices are changing due to the pressures exerted by both organisational cost-cutting and the need to generate more advertising revenue, both of which are linked to issues regarding audience popularity, market differentiation, speed and staffing. Further research clearly needs to be done in this area, but it appears that the intensity of such pressures has brought about the partial erosion of organisational structures designed historically to prevent the corporation’s commercial aims from interfering with its journalists’ editorial decision-making.
These findings build on previous work conducted at Goldsmiths regarding the marketisation of BBC News Online (Lee-Wright 2010; Redden and Witschge 2010), because they show that normative values are not necessarily marginalised in such processes. Rather, economic and normative values interact with and modify each other in the course of journalists’ deliberative decision-making, transforming their approaches to public service journalism. The new, value-laden practices that emerge from these deliberations also have a complex relationship to homogeneity (Lee-Wright 2010; Redden and Witschge 2010): On the one hand, cash- and time-poor journalists used NGO-provided multimedia because they thought it would help them differentiate their content from other news outlets both visually and in terms of the people and places covered (Phillips 2010). But on the other hand, the kinds of content these journalists selected and the marketised ways in which they processed it tended to strip out its alterity.
Such changing production practices re-legitimise the BBC’s reputation for offering a ‘global’ public news service, as well as enhance its ability to compete for audiences and advertisers online. However, this chapter raises serious questions about which and whose capabilities are enhanced by journalists’ use of NGO-provided photos on BBC News Online. Therefore, this study speaks to current debates about the future funding of BBC journalism, demonstrating that organisational cost-cutting does not solely produce greater efficiency. Rather, it tends to produce unintended qualitative changes in what journalists do, how they do it and how they view the purpose/s of journalism. The risk is that these changes further marginalise the values and perspectives of those who are already disadvantaged and disempowered in the world.
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Both items were about South Sudan and appeared on the Africa page of BBC News Online during a single week in August 2012. However, the second item had been republished as part of a special collection of archived material to mark the first anniversary of the country’s independence.