BBC World Service’s senior commissioning editor on public broadcasting, the digital revolution and journalism in the 21st century.
Steve Titherington is Senior Commissioning Editor for the BBC World Service. The 59-year-old, born to England’s north in Lancashire, has a wealth of experience at the world’s largest international broadcaster and oversees a prodigious output that reaches millions across the globe every week.
“I’ve done this post for about 10 years,” he told the Times, during an hour-long chat in downtown Buenos Aires earlier this month, a stop on a trip that coincided with the arrival of the Covid-19 coronavirus in Argentina.
“Before that I did a variety of things. I’ve been in the BBC officially for 33 years… so I’m relatively new,” he added with a grin.
Titherington is no stranger to a packed agenda and his time in Buenos Aires is no exception. Squeezed between a host of events, he was normally in the capital for a recording of the BBC’s World Questions show at the Teatro Picadero, a panel debate where the audience provides the questions.
In an unusual role-reversal for the veteran broadcaster, however, this time he’s the one being quizzed.
Have you been in Argentina before?
And how have you enjoyed Buenos Aires?
It’s been quite busy! It’s a beautiful city and has a lovely feel to it. We did some walking yesterday and it’s a delight to walk around. It’s one of those cities where you keep seeing things and you wish you had a longer time to stay.
[SNIP – Editor’s note: At this point, we spoke a little about the coronavirus outbreak. But that seems a little bit out of date to put in now!]
How many people do you reach today with the BBC World Service?
Well, we have, with the World Service, 97 million [who] listen to it every week. That’s an extraordinary number. But what’s more extraordinary is that has gone up quite rapidly in recent years, due to a mix of things. A lot is distribution, so digital is a part of it, [but also] working with partner stations more, people take bits of what we do or we make programmes together.
In a curious way though, our audience is mostly young. The average age of the World Service audience is as young as 31.
Wow, how do you measure that?
It’s extraordinary. We do a general audience measurement over the year – we stop people and talk to them, with digital you can track... that’s an element of what we do, that gives you quite a lot of analytics you never used to have. The traditional reach of radio is still very high and we know that we have a young audience – especially because, well, the world is young. And that group of people is connected, they want to know what’s happening in the world.
And what about gender?
Radio has always been 70/30 in terms of male/female. But we have a lot of audience in the [United] States through public radio and that’s more 50/50. We also find that in the key programmes that we do, the balance is much stronger.
We try to think of how to get our house in order. We have the 50/50 initiative [a plan to increase female representation in BBC content] to identify how to get our content right.
There is more awareness of diversity in voices today.
We are always thinking differently, because of how the World Service works. When I first arrived, I came from local radio into the World Service newsroom. I was immersed in a new world full of languages. To have those voices and understanding of stories in the World Service is crucial. To have an international team is what makes the World Service. Every story we do is potentially heard by all the people we talked about. We have to work for the rest of the world and we have to be something that stands up to that crucial great of people.
That’s an incredibly good demand, but increasingly we are also thinking about what’s our relationship to the people in the story. There’s a thing we do every now and again, when we’re working through, especially with documentaries… who should tell the story – should the reporter or the person actually in the story? Should we work with them?
You try to include those voices, the people in the stories... Why is that so important?
Journalism is about storytelling and connecting the big themes to how it works for an individual. But you can hear, in a sense, a person’s telling the story and that just has a lot of power. There was one report, it spoke about gunfire, and they said ‘Even the leaves of the trees had been shot away.’ Now that tells you the savagery of it.
What do you look for in a story when commissioning?
I commission documentaries and I look for a strong human story, with a sense of discovery and understanding of a universal theme.
Working with production companies? Or do you have an internal pitching process?
We have both. We work with external organisations that pitch ideas, [but] some of the best ideas come from the newest people in the BBC.
Do you have any opinions on Latin American news? Is it under-reported?
We have people in different parts of Latin America, [but] every part of the world is under-reported. There’s a fantastic service in Brazil and the reach online is extraordinary in terms of numbers.
The BBC has invested in the last few years putting bigger bureaus in different places. A lot has been in Africa, where we have a big audience. Some in India, with so many different audiences, there’s a big audience there.
Looking at Latin America … it doesn’t feel unreported when we discuss things in London. There are always people at the table making the case for what’s going on around the world.
There’s been a lot of debate of late in the UK about the future of the BBC’s licence fee. Is there a case for it in today’s media landscape?
The BBC is an amazing institution in the terms of the life of Britain. You get from that a whole range of television material, extraordinary radio material, and all the things that go with that in terms of giving people a service – news, entertainment, sports.
Working at the BBC, a part of the job, since I’ve been here at least, has been to explain what it does in return for having that licence fee, to be seen as properly representing the UK as a whole.
Has that debate shifted now because of streaming, new subscription models?
The whole subscription model is a very interesting one. We work a lot in America where there’s a lot of support for local stations.
In a way, the BBC’s obligation is to the whole community, whether you are a subscriber or not. That’s a key part of its reason for existing. Saturday, March 21, 2020 13
Are you, as staff, aware of the power and influence an institution like BBC has overseas?
We are not a state broadcaster. We are an independent editorial entity, we are supported by a licence fee. I’ve been in the BBC for quite a while and what I was told, first-off, is to try to make stories as accurate and balanced as possible. [To] have transparency as you know it’s going to be scrutinised. That’s a good thing. It’s good to have people look at a story and ask themselves if that works for them.
The BBC took criticism from both sides during the Brexit process, on how it covered Brexit. Was it a difficult thing to tackle?
We were there to cover a very real debate and to have a range of views and look at the debates in the whole of the UK and in Europe. It was a story that the audience was very interested in. We had to make sure to build the story into our coverage as it went on for a long time.
Many say we are today in a more polarised society. Are people interested in getting fair and balanced news?
We find that the longer the programme [is], the more popular it was. People want to understand more about subjects and that is stronger as it has ever been. Sometimes we think young people are not interested in the news but they are consuming more news than ever.
Do you think fake news is an overblown issue? I feel as if it always existed, the difference today is how it is spread, how it is shared...
It’s an important issue, people care about seeing things that are true. There’s a lot of things the BBC is doing, to fact check stories and that’s a part of what we do. What you have to do to offset fake news with news that is fair and clear. Newsrooms in recent years are changing, people are having to do more with less.
How does that make your job more difficult?
You have to be realistic about what you are able to do. It’s better to be really strong about the subjects you are able to cover and the depth of them. Make sure you build that rigour and transparency into the process. That is sacrosanct in the process.
That’s what makes great strong journalism. You have to think about how much output you are going to make and how do you organise a newsroom to make sure you have the right systems in place, with the right support, at the right time.