Covering the world

Other broadcasters may have been scaling back global operations, but not the BBC. Fran Unsworth, head of newsgathering at the corporation, explains why it is maintaining its worldwide network of 41 bureaux and continuing to showcase its reporters

Altogether we’ve got 41 foreign bureaux for a foreign newsgathering team of 250 people, with a total budget of £35m. On top of that figure, the World Service pays us £9m for the journalism we give them.

Altogether we’ve got 41 foreign bureaux for a foreign newsgathering team of 250 people, with a total budget of £35m. On top of that figure, the World Service pays us £9m for the journalism we give them.

We have seven “hub” bureaux: Washington, Brussels, Johannesburg, Moscow, Delhi, Beijing, Jerusalem. We moved the hub bureau for South East Asia from Singapore to Beijing about a year ago. Singapore has fantastic communications as a jumping-off point, but the trouble was we wanted to do more out of China.

We spend a significant amount of money on Baghdad because we have to fund the security, and because it’s a hardship post and we cannot keep people there permanently, so we spend a large amount on turnarounds. Nick Witchell is there at the moment.

There are always decisions to be made on where to reinforce. Afghanistan was just one person but now we have quite a big operation with two correspondents – Alastair Leithead and Martin Patience – and a crew that goes with them.

Although 250 people might sound like a large operation, that includes correspondents, producers, local fixers, crews, engineers and drivers. In the Delhi bureau, there are around 110 people, but only 10 or 15 are working for newsgathering in English – the rest are working for the World Service. I don’t think you could say we have everywhere covered. I’m thinking of Africa, where we have a newsgathering bureau in Johannesburg, another in Nairobi and stringers in Nigeria, Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana. That leaves a lot of space in the middle of the continent.

But most of our £35m comes from the licence fee. We have to demonstrate value for money for the licence fee payer. It’s the World Service audience that would like more material from that part of the world. We have to think of how much space stories from a particular bureau will get on the BBC news bulletins in order to justify the spending on the infrastructure.

Our priorities are the rise of China, the rise of India and the global economy. The Middle East also remains a big story, as does Afghanistan.

We are in Baghdad because it’s a big story, but we need to keep an eye on that. It gets on the bulletins a lot less than it did. Natalia Antelava, who is now off to Beirut, has been covering all of Central Asia from Almaty in Kazakhstan. We have three people in Moscow but that will go to two, and they will be covering news in 12 time zones.

We opened in Beirut a couple of years ago, just before the Lebanon War started. But we have scaled back in Europe to fund our operations in Baghdad and Afghanistan. Our rationale on Europe is that although Italy, Germany and France are culturally different from the UK, we can get there easily from Brussels. We have to flex according to our priorities and match that against our ability to respond quickly. We cannot flex by saying: “We need a brand-spanking new bureau, costing £1m, in this city.”

The new technology enables us to operate at a much lower cost. This is revolutionising newsgathering. During the Russian presidential election, we were doing live reports from Siberia for the cost of a local telephone call.

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