The BBC should rethink its global news coverage

A portrait of Richard Ayre
Richard Ayre 28th March 2023
Secunder Kermani reporting on the Brazilian elections for Channel 4 News.

Secunder Kermani reporting on the Brazilian elections for Channel 4 News.

With the BBC about to launch its new 24 hour rolling news channel, former BBC executive Richard Ayre, calls on the broadcaster to seize the opportunity and create a genuinely global news channel.

Forty years ago, I made my first trip to the USA, joining seven reporters from north America on a fellowship in broadcast journalism. As we got to know one another I was discomforted to find that they seemed to regard me as a guru of world affairs even though, at that time, I’d never reported outside the UK. 

As I settled in to life at the University of Chicago and watched the nightly news on NBC, CBS and ABC I realised that American audiences were told almost nothing about the political or social geography of the outside world unless Americans were dying there. Isolationism was bred daily into Americans in their own homes.  I even became friends with a student who asked me to explain what I meant when I kept talking about “pounds” as though they were currency. He was in the Business School.  

The BBC once had more foreign correspondents than any other broadcaster

At that time, the BBC had more foreign correspondents in more countries around the world than any other global broadcaster.  Most of them were Brits. Sometimes they couldn’t speak the local language, but they were there, they were on the spot. They were hungry to broadcast and, thanks to them, audiences back home in Britain were able to form world views of their own, admittedly through an overwhelmingly white, male, ex-pat lens. 

The BBC of today still ranks close to the top of world news organisations in the number of its foreign outposts, despite state broadcasters like China’s CCTV pouring a fortune into propaganda bureaux around the world. 

BBC News now features a more diverse range of voices

Thanks to an initiative a decade and more ago driven largely by the needs of cost-cutting, fewer and fewer of the BBC’s foreign correspondents are now white males, and more and more are home grown, firmly rooted in an understanding of local cultures and politics, though in truth they report largely for the BBC’s World Service radio rather than on TV.  

Brits still dominate BBC reporting from Europe, the US, the Middle East and Russia, and to their credit those correspondents continue to be among the very best in the business.         

Why I turn to Channel 4 News for a global perspective

So why do I find myself turning first to Channel 4 News to see more of the world from Asia, from Africa, and from Latin America? The simple answer is that BBC TV news programmes are great at reporting and analysing the big political, economic and social stories of the day from the UK; at covering with great courage the war in Ukraine, and at making space for big stories in Washington and around the States. 

But there’s only so much you can pack into 25 minutes of airtime, and even the Ten O’Clock News is shorter these days, constrained by the tyranny of a multi-genre schedule that aims (successfully) to maintain BBC1 as the nation’s most popular channel.  

Once there was a time when Newsnight could devote fifteen minutes to a country we may have barely heard of, but no more.  As successive governments have frozen the licence fee, programme budgets have been slashed and a channel like BBC2 that can deliver only hundreds of thousands of viewers late at night can’t expect to splash the cash on a fourteen-day trek through the Amazon rainforests.

The new channel offers a unique opportunity for the BBC to rethink its global coverage

From April 3rd, BBC will reconfigure its television news operation in a way that’s causing both anger and redundancy among its staff. The News Channel (formerly known as News24) and BBC World (carrying advertising breaks and therefore available only outside the UK) will become one.  

In fact, the cohabitation has been happening gradually over the past months, with viewers in the UK overnight and at weekends watching a single and frankly often threadbare service of mostly domestic news that’s also available around the world for anyone obsessed with the minutiae of life in Britain.

The new channel can be the first genuinely global source of global news

But there is a chance at redemption here, if only the BBC has the courage to take it. Forget the purpose once served by News 24. We no longer need a non-stop and inevitably repetitive cycle of the day’s top stories whenever we feel the need to turn on the TV: for a decade and more the internet has been providing that service from a myriad of news sources, including BBC Online. 

Instead, let the BBC turn the new channel into a kaleidoscope of stories, breaking, broken, and merely emerging, from every country and territory where the BBC still has an outpost. Let the BBC offer to the UK and to the world the first genuinely global source of global news from and to every continent on the planet. Let Nation speak unto Nation on one channel with one purpose: to tell us things about the great wide world that we don’t know but maybe should. 

Richard Ayre was the BBC’s Controller of Editorial Policy and Deputy Chief Executive of BBC News. He is currently Chair of Impress, the UK’s Independent press regulator.     

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