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How digital news publishers can survive in the ‘fake news’ era: Q&A with Jamie Angus

Simple declaring 'We're independent' won't help media brands to stand out or find audiences, says Deputy Director, BBC World Service Group and Editorial Director BBC Global News Jamie Angus. He talks to Mumbrella's Vivienne Kelly about what audiences want from digital news publishers, what the 'fake news' phenomenon is all about, and why Facebook and third-party sites aren't the enemy.

The BBC just conducted a study which found BBC World News is the most-trusted international news channel in Australia and that 71% of Australian news consumers are concerned about fake news. When we do stories around these studies though, one of the comments we always get back is “Media organisation does study that proves it is the best or strongest or safest, how surprising” – so you’re sort of doing a study that then reveals that the BBC is the most trusted and is a good platform and all of those things. So what’s your response to that when people say this might be a bit of a self-serving study for the BBC?
Well I think we’re seeing amongst our audiences that there’s a great deal of concern about fake news and the reliability of news. People can choose where they get their content online, and it’s not easy to tell whether it’s come from a reputable broadcaster, and there’s been a lot in the market and the press, a lot about that and although as you say Vivienne we’ve got a well-worn and authoritative claim to be most-trusted, we wanted to put a bit more information around this debate.

So partly we wanted to look at whether this was also an Asia-Pac issue as well as a western European and USA issue. So I think some of the higher-profile fake news stories have kind of taken place in Europe and America, particularly around the US Presidential election. And I was travelling in Asia-Pac this year and was often being asked, ‘Oh you know, is this actually an Asia-Pac phenomenon as well?’ So I think the research kind of bears that out actually, which is attitudes that we see in our audiences in other parts of the world also exist in Asia-Pac.

So partly we thought it was worth doing for that reason, but also we were just interested anyway to see interplays between people’s digital consumption and the TV channel – because TV channels are sometimes described as the technology of the past, and a legacy platform, but actually we still believe – we’ve still got growing audiences on TV platforms – I’m sure you see that elsewhere in the market – and actually one of the things the research looked into was how people check – when people see digital news, they may go and check it out on TV platforms as well, which I think is interesting and tells you something interesting about how the industry is migrating to digital, but not necessarily at the expense of TV platforms.

So I kind of hope that there is more interesting stuff in the release than that which is purely self-serving, although some of it is that as well.

Jamie Angus: BBC has “plenty of room for growth” in Australia

There’s obviously a narrative running at the moment that TV networks are in trouble, traditional publishers are in trouble – do you think that this study disproves, or at least moves that narrative on a little bit?
If you’ve got a big, well-established and trusted brand you’re in a different position. And I think that there are clearly some really challenging things about news in the digital space which we’re all grappling with. And I suppose I’d sum that up by saying that the barrier for entry to digital news has never been lower than it is. Part of the fake news problem if you like, is that anyone can set up a website that purports to be a news site, or does an approximation and impersonation of a news site, and they can do that or a very low cost and if they are savvy about social media distribution, and they’re writing clicky stuff that plays into a particular story, and we see this quite a lot around politics – fake news around politics – that they can generate really high levels of traffic.

So the barriers for entry are really low, and attribution on digital news we know is an issue – so people often don’t know if it’s on an aggregated site or a third-party site, they don’t know which news brand they’ve just consumed, so that’s also an issue. And I think media literacy in general is a sort of problem that the industry and all of our society is starting to grapple with – which is like: Do people really intuitively understand how news is made and the values that underpin it in the way that they did a generation ago, when they would expect to find a newspaper on their doorstep in the morning – and understand who had worked on it and what valuers had underpinned it?

And I think those are the three things that are really challenging about news in the digital space.

We don’t have a particularly doom-laden outlook, but we recognise that our challenges are the same as for the whole premium-end of the industry.

How do you overcome those challenges, particularly when the use of the term ‘fake news’ has gone up so much – and it’s not even just being used to apply to actual fake news anymore, it can be used as a threat to media organisations, it can be used to undermine journalists, it’s not even just being used for news that is not real – so how can a traditional publisher, or a more trusted publisher start to overcome the issues associated with fake news and fake ‘fake news’?
That’s a very perceptive comment and I think for me, one of the big turning points in this debate was President Trump, the President of the United States calling CNN fake news from The White House podium. I thought it was a real moment where this became a political label as much as it was a useful distinction.

I’ve tried to describe three different categories of fake news. The first is kind of ‘clickbait’ – deliberately clickbait for revenue purposes, so they’re kind of money-making exercises, and that’s the kind of Macedonian teenagers setting up fake news sites to make revenue.

And the second one is what you might call political comment or advocacy dressed up as straight news, so people who are deliberately setting up very-highly politicised sites usually to push a cause or a political agenda, but sort of dressing up what is essentially comment as straight news.

And I think the third and the most publicised category is state actors investing in really highly organised and toxic fake news in order to destabilise particular regions or situations, or escalate conflicts for their own particular aims.

So it is really helpful to talk about and name and be precise about what we mean.

I think the BBC, you asked what we are doing, there is a lot of different stuff – but one of the things we’re talking about a lot this year is the reality check strands that we’re running. So we’ve heard a lot from audiences that they want us to call out the facts of a disputed argument very much more clearly than perhaps we have done in the past – they’ve criticised us a little in the past for being too equivocal and doing the reporting of “Well on the one hand this campaign says ‘this’, and on the other hand the other campaign says ‘that’, and who’s to say [what’s right]? And time will tell.”

And audiences told us very clearly, both in our coverage of domestic politics, but also internationally that they wanted a lot more of the BBC to put where there are verified and agreeable facts in a debate, they wanted us to put them in a reality check format on TV and online. So I think a main plank of what we’re doing this year is that.

The ABC here is quite a political football and is often accused of being left-leaning or having a political agenda, so there are some people who really trust our national broadcaster and others who are really skeptical of its political beliefs. So why do you think the BBC equivalent is quite trusted here in Australia, when the ABC seems to face some trust issues?
The trust in the independence of the BBC is our most-valuable asset. And that’s why we are the most-trusted international news brand [in Australia]. And I’m not complacent about that, because we have to keep fighting for it.

When I talk to international audiences about how the BBC is structured, I think it’s independence is the most important thing. So the BBC is not to a very large extent financed by the UK government. It’s almost entirely financed domestically by everyone who owns a TV set in this country – so you can kind of say the BBC is owned by the population of the UK and its independence from the government is guaranteed by the charter that governs us – and actually interestingly, in the UK space we have a fixed 11-year charter for the BBC, so that once that is renewed every 11 years, the BBC can’t be threatened with rolling budget cuts for example, so its annual operating budget can never become a political football, which I know has been the fate of other state broadcasters.

How the organisation is owned and run guarantees its independence in a way that no-one else really enjoys. But we can’t expect that to win audiences over – that’s what underpins our values – but I think the content that we make has to continue… we have to really push to be innovative, to invest, in [good] journalism, reality checks, to continue to innovative our products, particularly online, because we’re in a really competitive news market, and us just saying ‘We’re independent’ won’t necessarily cut it with audiences. That’s just something that we’re able to say with our hands on our hearts.

Do you have growth plans for the Australian market? What does the BBC see as the future for its position in Australia?
It’s interesting that a number of international broadcasters and news organisations have been investing in Australia. We opened an Australian edition of the website in the last 18 months. We’ve invested in additional journalism posts where you are. The Australian edition, it’s important, it’s an international news site. So we’re not aiming to compete on Australian news with Australian providers, because a) the scale of investment required to do that is huge and b) actually that’s not really sensibly what the BBC is for.

We think Australian audiences trust us particularly on international news and so we want to do an Australian-facing site for the international news we are most recognised and respected for – so that’s the sort of TV journalism and TV reporting for the World News Channel, obviously some of the radio offering is available via the ABC and online…[We want to make sure] the best of the BBC content is curated for Australian audiences with some original Australian content. So the nature of our proposition is quite different to some of the other international entrants into your market.

So if you were to try and grow your audience here, who are you trying to steal eyeballs from? If it’s not Australian news content providers, who are your biggest competitors?
We are competing in an international space with other large TV broadcasters like CNN, probably online with The Guardian Australia, so other international entrants into the market. But actually we do see room for audience growth with people who already heavily consume domestic providers, because sometimes the BBC is a secondary source of information for people. And we’re actually quite happy with that. That’s a good market for us. So people will switch to us on international breaking news stories. They will switch to us on whatever platform for UK-related stories, say around our upcoming General Election or in Brexit last year, and then also turn to us for really big international stories like geopolitical tensions around North Korea or the US Presidential Election ongoing saga.

So we’re not in a trade-off with domestic Australian audiences. We understand that often audiences will go to a domestic Australian provider for their first slice of domestic-facing news, and then they’ll select the BBC as a secondary source. And that’s actually really good for us. That’s a good business for us to be in. So we’ve still got plenty of room for growth there.

So speaking of secondary source, a narrative that is spun quite often is that people don’t care where they’re getting their news – they’re not aligned to publishers or media company’s brands, they just want the information. But this study and what you’re saying seems to indicate that that might not be right. People might read something on Facebook, but then they’re going somewhere trusted to check that that’s accurate, or that that company is covering that angle and that line as well, so do you think the narrative around people not caring what platform it is is, is inaccurate?
I think some people care and some people don’t have that degree of media literacy, which is why I’ve mentioned that. I think the nature of aggregation sites and third-party syndication is difficult sometimes for news brands to manage, because we all want the additional audience that aggregation can provide us, and actually if people want to consume their news via Apple News, that’s fine, I don’t have a problem with that. I want them to see BBC News within that curation, but I don’t theologically think that’s wrong. I think it’s then down to the BBC to make sure that our news is branded, so that people can attribute what they read say in Apple News back to the BBC, but also that it’s appealing and people want to come back to us and consume more of it.

And I think what we’ve got in our survey around Facebook shares and so on shows that we’re still doing well and we’re competitive in that market. So I don’t think broadcasters should say ‘This is a terrible system and people just don’t understand anymore’. That’s not a good response. The response should be: expanding markets and digital news are leading to growing audiences. That’s good. There’s a great deal of international interest in news at the moment because Donald Trump, North Korea, really big international and regional stories. That’s a good thing. And its up to broadcasters to navigate their way through that to make sure that audiences know whose content they are reading and viewing, so we shouldn’t be too pessimistic. I think I’m a glass half-full kind of person in that respect.

So I guess you’re not against platforms such as Apple News and Facebook Instant Articles? You think the onus is a bit more on the publisher to make sure that that branding is there and that audience awareness is there?
I think all of us feel that Facebook, for example, will give us access to audiences who on the face of it say they have no interest in consuming news – so we know that lots of consumers on social media sites, if you ask them outright if they’re interested in international news, they’ll just say ‘no’. But if you reach them via a Facebook or another third-party with the right content that is innovative, creative and is well curated and engaging and commissioned, we know that they’ll consume it and really enjoy it. So I think every broadcaster has to be optimistic about the power of social media particularly, to engage audience who apparently don’t want top consume any news at all, but in fact they’re perfectly happy to if the right stuff is put in front of them.

Key findings from the BBC Value of News Study

  • 71% of Australian news consumers are concerned about fake news
  • 76% are more inclined to refer to established news brands because of fake news
  • Trust levels for brands associated with traditional news media are 64% higher than digital native news sites
  • 57% say advertising on untrusted media has a detrimental effect on their perception of a brand
  • 62% of consumers say they are more inclined to read sponsored content on sites that they trust
  • 57% say that being associated with an untrusted media outlet would negatively affect their perception of a brand

*Source: BBC Value of News study. Research conducted independently by BDRC Asia in March 2017.
Market: Australia. Unique Sample size: 303 (Online Survey Sample: 300 Vox Pop Sample: 20)

Respondents profile:
18 – 54 years old digital savvy international news consumers (at least once-a- week) and Pay TV /cable TV subscribers, decision maker / joint decision maker for channel package subscription.

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