If the English market is tough for serious players in Indian journalism, keeping the head above the water in the languages is a humongous challenge. So immense, so expensive, and so impossible is the task of attracting readers and viewers, and keeping them engaged with quality content, that nearly nobody is attempting to do it.
The British Broadcasting Corporation is a stand-out exception.
In an arena filled with itsy-bitsy, tits-and-ass, click-bait majors—madly chasing eyeballs with the fake, frothy and frivolous; and conning agencies, advertisers (and themselves) with eye-popping numbers of “uniques”—BBC is an isle of calm. Quietly doing what it does best—journalism—and leaving audiences informed and empowered.
Rupa Jha is head of BBC Languages in India, responsible for content in Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, Marathi, Gujarati and Punjabi. Her mandate: to enhance the “strength, depth, range and quality” of all BBC multimedia output, words mostly alien to bottomline-obsessed managers, in a mad race to the bottom.
Q: How does BBC as an international broadcaster view the Indian language market?
Rupa Jha: The BBC has been working in Hindi, Tamil, Urdu and Bengali for more than seven decades. It recently decided to expand its portfolio to realise the potential of a wider language market. Hence, the creation of BBC news services in Telugu, Punjabi, Gujarati and Marathi.
Obviously, the language market in India is extremely crowded, with more than 900 TV channels, thousands of websites and hundreds of radio stations, but it struck us that there was a place for a brand known for credibility, trust and a world view; a brand that could challenge the status quo and be a strong counterweight to the rising challenge of fake news and the “echo chamber” effect.
The four new languages services were launched in 2017, following a “digital-first” strategy supported by a partner-based TV presence. It was the biggest expansion of the BBC in India, since the 1940s. We hired around 150 new staff and created a state-of-the-art production hub, making Delhi the second biggest BBC bureau after Nairobi.
The bureau also houses two new, ultra-modern TV studios, giving our new TV programmes a fresh look and presentation that stands out for high production values and distinctive story telling. We also have five satellite offices where small teams shoot, edit and produce local content at the state level.
Q: What does the Indian language viewer, listener, surfer look for from BBC’s various language services that she doesn’t get from established legacy players?
Rupa Jha: The regional market is dominated by hyper-local content. So the content strategy of the BBC in this market of languages is to make a differentiated offer and become a trusted window for people to understand the place of India in the world.
Original content is at the centre of this strategy with a special focus on serving underserved audiences such as the young and women.
We aim to drive audience growth by expanding our traditional appeal amongst “news connoisseurs” into a wider group of “news nibblers”.
Our research told us that local players tend to focus their news coverage mainly on the “what” and “when” but there is little effort being made to explain the “why”. This helped us to develop a model we call our “news needs wheel”.
This showed that audiences wanted the BBC to provide perspective and context, together with stories that educate, inspire and offer solutions. We use this model not only to tell international stories but also to help develop narratives on the local by stepping back and looking at the big picture.
Based on our understanding of “news needs”, our content strategy is to decode national/regional stories for all language audiences and help generate an interest in news that is beyond hyperlocal.
Q: What does BBC do in the languages that Indian media houses can’t, won’t, don’t? How does it approach Bharat?
Rupa Jha: We believe the BBC stands out for its values and principles. BBC editorial guidelines are the same for all operations, whether based in the UK or outside. The DNA of the organisation is our editorial values.
Trust is the foundation of the BBC.
“We are independent, impartial and honest.
“We are truthful and fair in all our dealings.
“We make decisions based on our values, stick by them and take responsibility for them.
“We behave with integrity and do what we say we’re going to do.
“We take pride in that and ensure that we don’t get seduced by a desire to be the first to break news, something that can easily cost your credibility.”
We acknowledge that the BBC in India is not the first port of call for people. Our assumption is that what they do want from us is analysis and explanation of an event.
We have a huge loyal audience in rural India and we ensure that we cater to that segment of society through our editorial agenda. Because of this we have a specific focus on marginalised communities, women, farmers and stories of human rights, development and justice.
A good example is presented by this current election period. We have been running a month of special output called “Reality Check” where the promises made by the political class and those in power is being assessed. We do regular fact-check stories, busting the fake news.
# We have also had special coverage around Muslims in India called “Being Muslim in India” and we cover stories around caste identity regularly.
# We had a season in Marathi called Ambedkar and Me, showcasing stories of successful Dalit entrepreneurs.
# We have featured stories of women from across the country, under the banner “BBCShe”, stories of choices men and women made called “His choice” and “Her choice”.
# We have also committed ourselves to deliver strong contextual coverage of Kashmir—for example, we had a series of stories from the region based around looking at violence through the eyes of children.
# We also have a special focus on tribal issues. Our recent coverage of Pulwama and aftermath is a case in point where we worked hard to ensure neutrality and balance in coverage based on facts.
Q: It used to be said that Indians looked at and listened to BBC for its credibility. Is that still the case after the growth of homegrown media? How do you achieve this? What are the tell-tale signs of a fake story for you?
Rupa Jha: Yes, of course. Credibility is the tag that has helped us grow in the market. We work hard on the training of all our full-time journalists and stringers to ensure they fully understand our editorial guidelines so that they understand the BBC way of reporting. This training is a continuous process and takes up a significant part of our budget.
We also have a very strong system of editorial checks and balances. All our language services cross-check and triangulate their stories, and also liaise with the London headquarters through a central planning desk which also ensures that there is a flow of news that is checked and verified. We have standing instructions not to run stories unless there are two independent sources or if we have our own direct sources.
On top of all the above principles and practices, we fact-check stories daily, mostly viral stories. We have also invested resources in a lot of “on-the-ground, eye-witness reporting” at a time when other Indian media have been reducing the amount they do.
Q: As the head of BBC languages in India, what does your work entail, how many people do you lead, how do you go about spotting and farming out stories, what kind of stories do you like, etc?
Rupa Jha: My job is to coordinate and oversee the whole of the BBC languages operation in India and to be a vital link to BBC HQ in London. I directly manage ten Service Leads and make sure staff across services in Delhi are properly managed, recruited and developed. As head, it is my task to ensure that there is a strong, creative culture across the bureau, that every member of staff understands clearly what we are doing and who we are doing it for.
My aim is to ensure all services provide a distinctive offering to the Indian market, with a focus on original and solutions-based journalism, mobile-first content, social media engagement and a mixture of news and near news content. I also have to make sure we are optimising our content on every platform and in each language.
We leverage our strength in international news to report Indian news with a global context, i.e. stories that will compare Indian issues to those in the rest of the world and global stories that are made relevant to an Indian audience. To attract new audiences to the BBC, the new services address diverse content needs of the youth and female audiences and deliver the quality, independent journalism that is lacking in this market.
Q: There are thousands studying journalism especially in the languages. What would you advise them about the way forward? How can they equip themselves to work for the BBC some day? Can they freelance for you?
Rupa Jha: I feel the language scene in journalism is flourishing. Digital is the way forward, so take the plunge. Whatever format you work in, understand that a good story is a good story. Understanding the eco-system where we operate is vital.
We don’t ONLY look for those who have a degree in journalism. For the BBC that’s not the only consideration because we feel if you are curious and passionate and can tell a good story, you can become a journalist.
It’s a fantastic profession which needs people with courage, imagination and conviction. They can surely freelance for us by sending their CV and work sample to us.
Photograph: courtesy Rupa Jha
Slides: courtesy WAN-IFRA