BBC must embrace diversity and explore new mechanisms for engaging with audiences, says Kamal Ahmed

Posted on: November 12, 2020 by Claire Meadows

The BBC must embrace diversity and inclusion and continue to explore different mechanisms for telling news stories in order to better engage with its audiences, the corporation’s Editorial Director has said.

Speaking to the Society of Editors’ Executive Director Ian Murray as part of the Society’s Virtual Conference 2020 In Discussion With…series, Kamal Ahmed said that by continuing to promote diversity and inclusion and by BBC News listening to its audiences and exploring different methods of telling news stories, it was hoped that it could re-engage with those that no longer recognised themselves in its news coverage.

He said: “There is a new need for transparency with your audiences about what you do and about how you do it. We need to think carefully about how we do that and how we create journalism which is brilliant, authoritative, questioning and revealing great original news stories which matter for many people and, at the same time, developing new ways of telling stories which help audiences engage with what we do.”

Alongside engaging with individuals and communities from different backgrounds, Ahmed said that diversity and inclusion within the BBC itself would play a significant role in the corporation’s ability to connect with its viewers.  

He added: “If we don’t get diversity and inclusion right within the BBC, we can’t reflect all audiences but impartiality is about listening to all audiences and thinking about what it is they are saying to us and being quite deliberate about that. You have to have a deliberate process which allows you to think about what the audiences are talking about and what they want to know about. The whole picture is real people talking and audiences giving us a proper mix. [This includes] socioeconomic background, diversity and nations and regions outside of London. We are going to push ourselves on all those things.”

Ahmed’s discussion, titled ‘The Future of BBC News in a Changing Media Landscape’ took place as part of the Society’s Virtual Conference 2020 which will see four In Discussion With… keynote talks from leading industry figures alongside 8 panel debates in the nations and regions during the course of November and December. Free registration is open for all the discussions with keynote talks also scheduled with Rachel Corp, recently appointed Editor of ITV News and the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Burnett of Maldon on November 26 and November 19 respectively.

Touching more upon the issue of BBC impartiality and new Director General Tim Davie’s emphasis on it, Ahmed said that it was important that daily discussions around impartiality were both embedded and obvious to audiences. By exploring different mechanisms of telling stories and allowing the audience to “own more of the reporting in their own voice”, research had suggested that audiences “instinctively feel that [coverage] is more impartial”, Ahmed said.   

He added: “If you just cover all issues through the lens of an argument, the public could perceive that as somehow being bias towards one side or another. Clearly there have been arguments about the BBC and whether it is impartial but that is not quite how we look at it. We never think “we are right on this” – it is a daily discussion.

“BBC News and Current Affairs is one of the major touchpoints of course on this issue for audiences and we have to take great care in what we do. What I will say though is that Ofcom has not found against us in respect of impartiality despite having many, many complaints against us. We navigate very, very carefully through these issues with great discussion. We produce hundreds of hours of content every week but I think that the error rate – if there is one – is absolutely tiny given the number of hours we produce.”

Alongside audiences’ expectations that coverage would be balanced and fair, BBC News was also tasked with covering controversies including the corporation itself, Ahmed said.

He added: “BBC News is wholly separate in terms of its reporting and what it does from the rest of the BBC. We have to approach all those subjects with due impartiality. What is amazing about the BBC is that BBC News reports as robustly on any BBC News controversy as we would on anything in a world outside of the BBC. That is a great advantage of BBC News. I can genuinely say that it does not matter what my opinion is on the pay of some of our leading stars, on the over 75s and the licence fee because BBC News is rigorously impartial on these issues. As soon as we are not, we will lose the trust of our audiences.”

Looking to BBC News’ coverage of the Covid-19 crisis, Ahmed said that the pandemic had proved fundamental, not just for the corporation’s journalists, but for journalists and journalism more widely. The pandemic had also presented extraordinary challenges for those covering it in a way that significant events such as the death of Princess Diana, the September 11th attacks, the Iraq war and the London bombings had not, he said. 

“We are literally living the story and living in it as human beings. We have both been reporting a story and living it and that has really raised new challenges for us as an industry – which I think we have really risen to – but it has also meant that we have to think more closely about what audiences need from us as journalists in this period” he added.

Ahmed said that he recognised the BBC’s “hugely important role” in not just reporting the news and what is happening but also explaining it to audiences and making sure that BBC News struck the right balance between holding power to account and, where opinions differed, giving “due reins to those opinions” he said.

He added: “Some people are now more critical of the government than in the original lockdown in March and April and some of that faith in what the government is doing has broken down and we need to reflect that in how we cover where we are as a set of nations but also where we are in comparison with round the world.

“We also need to ensure that the government is able to put its case. That’s the really important balance that we use and talk through every day.”

The full In Discussion With…interview with Kamal Ahmed is available from 12 Noon on the Society of Editors website.