The BBC and international understanding

28 August 2015
Author: Sophie Chalk

In an age when you can get news, entertainment and even a personal trainer on your mobile phone, do we really need television and radio programmes to engage us with people’s lives in other countries?

This is a question the BBC is currently considering as part of its Charter Review. The International Broadcasting Trust (IBT) is campaigning to make sure that the BBC remains committed to ‘bringing the world to the UK’ on TV and radio.

TV is still the most popular source of information about the wider world – 75% of us use TV news to find out what is going on in the world and, surprisingly, 95% of all viewing is still on traditional TV, while only 5% is online.

Although the internet is a vital resource in the modern world, it still doesn’t have the reach of TV, which has access to an audience of millions and which can engage us emotionally and imaginatively with the lives of others.

Why we need the BBC

IBT believes we need the BBC more than ever to engage us with the wider world. It is the UK’s biggest public service broadcaster with this specific responsibility. It provides impartial, independent news as well as other non-news programmes which put the news in a wider context, explaining the human background to events, which otherwise might seem to have little personal relevance to us. The BBC has an obligation to provide content which broadens our horizons. It is a publicly funded organisation, so if it fails to do this, we can hold it to account.

Non-news international content

In the UK we are becoming more insular – research shows we feel more vulnerable to attack from abroad, and immigration was a key election issue this year. We are falling behind other countries because we don’t have the cultural awareness necessary for our businesses to operate in a global marketplace. And racial prejudice in the UK is on the rise.

We need a better understanding of the external forces which are shaping our lives in an increasingly globalised world: climate change, international politics, the emerging economies, and the international UK's influence. BBC TV and radio have a crucial role to play in this process.

News programmes tend to reinforce the stereotypes which scare us; if you believe what you see on the news, other countries are dangerous, with constant wars, famines and natural disasters.

IBT research shows that audiences tend to be alienated by bad news. After an international disaster people may donate to a Disasters Emergency Committee appeal, but before long switch off emotionally, because they feel there is little more they can do. This is when non-news content comes into its own – programmes which go behind the headlines, provide us with an opportunity to understand better the people who are at the centre of these stories and to emotionally engage with them.

The BBC does this well with documentaries, such as This World or the Welcome to… series. It does it with children’s content like Blue Peter and Newsround. It does it with Stacey Dooley and Reggie Yates. And it does it brilliantly on radio with From Our Own Correspondent and other factual programmes.

Preserving international content

Ten years ago there was no commitment for the BBC to ‘bring the world to the UK’. It came about because of lobbying by the international development sector via IBT. We need to pull together again to make sure this committment is preserved in the BBC Charter.

IBT is forming Public Voice, a coalition of concerned organisations, to promote the message that we need the BBC to be able to do all it currently does and possibly more. The coalition will be busy in the coming months lobbying parliamentarians, the BBC, the BBC Trust and civil servants. We are looking for partners to work with on this important campaign. If you want to get involved contact Sophie Chalk at IBT on [email protected].

About the author

Sophie Chalk
International Broadcasting Trust

An experienced TV producer and director, Sophie joined the IBT as director of campaigns in 2006. In recent years she has also worked as a visiting lecturer for One World Media speaking on the representation of the developing world and UK media.