Radio Pyongyang? BBC News should broadcast in North Korea, says the man who wrote the report on its future


The BBC has been advised to establish a news service that broadcasts to Kim Jong Un’s North Korea in a specially commissioned report on the future of the BBC news division.

The report’s author, Sir Howard Stringer, the former head of the Sony Corporation, calls on the BBC to overcome problems that have previously prevented it from broadcasting to the secretive nation where receiving foreign news media is treated as a criminal offence. “Although there are significant obstacles put in place by the government, an impartial, accurate news service would be enormously valuable to the people of North Korea,” he wrote.

Sir Howard was asked by the BBC News Director James Harding to suggest ways in which the BBC could increase its global reach to meet a target, set by Director General Lord Hall, of serving 500m people worldwide by 2022.

His ideas included plans to help programmes such as Countryfile, The One Show and Newsround find an international audience. He suggested that the BBC should explore opportunities in Ethiopia and North Korea.

“North Korea remains one of the least open countries in the world,” he said. “Given the lengths the government goes to in order to block outside media, the BBC needs to continue to consider how it could best serve the population, either with a news service on radio or digital or through other BBC services such as English language teaching.”

For more than two years the BBC has faced calls in Parliament for it to open a North Korean service but the broadcaster, which recently inherited responsibility for the BBC World Service budget from the Foreign Office, has so far declined to do so.

Sir Howard said the BBC should be looking to expand its footprint with a “multi-genre channel” in Africa.

He said that the BBC could expect to reach five million Ethiopians a week if it opened a service targeted at that country, suggesting that the broadcaster should aim to serve the audience via mobiles. “With at least 93 million people, Ethiopia is the second most populous country in Africa. A service in the national language Amharic, could reach a significant number.”

Sir Howard claimed that the BBC was not realising the full potential of its “near-news brands” and called for more programmes to be given an international outlet, following the example of the youth radio brand Newsbeat, which was recently given a global edition.

“Two [programmes] that stand out are The One Show, rightly known for its mix of celebrity, entertainment and current affairs, and Countryfile,” he wrote.

“In addition, the BBC should look for more opportunities to produce Newsround internationally. Newsround is a unique proposition, offering comprehensive coverage of world news tailored to six to 12-year-olds. In each case, it would be cost-effective to reversion films produced for the domestic outlet in different languages and to work with a local partner to build the content around those films.”

BBC News currently reaches around 256 million a week, including around 145 million radio listeners, around 112 million television viewers and 40 million online users.

He said the BBC, with a digital audience of around 150 million, was “punching well below its weight in the digital world” and needed to be more adventurous.

“This is more than CNN but still less than Buzzfeed’s peak of 160 million, and only the same as the MailOnline’s 150 million monthly audience in English alone. Given Buzzfeed, for example, was only founded in 2006, this raises the question of why the BBC’s global digital reach is not more significant.”

He suggested that the BBC website’s “neutral tone” was hindering its growth. “When looking at the competition online, it is clear that the sites that are growing quickly – whether it is Vice or Buzzfeed or Upworthy – are the ones that have a really distinctive character,” he said.

Liliane Landor, Acting Director of BBC World Service Group, said: “We do not regard this as a blueprint and the ideas are there to pick and choose from, but they will all help open up the debate about how best we can serve our audiences. There is a real, and gratifying, overlap between our thinking and many of the ideas in the report, some of which we are already embracing.”