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Interview with Richard Sambrook, director of the BBC Global News Division

Richard Sambrook at the Whose News conference at Harvard - March 2005 Richard Sambrook is a 25-year veteran of the BBC and current director of the BBC Global News Division. He is responsibilie for all BBC international news services on TV, Radio and the Internet. This includes World Service radio and online in 43 languages, BBC World News TV distributed in 240 million homes globally and the international online news site,

In this e-mail interview with Sambrook in March, 2005, he explains how participatory media strengthens the BBC’s core values; the BBC’s role shifting from broadcaster and mediator to facilitator, enabler and teacher; and forthcoming projects such as the Creative Archive, the Global Conversation and the BBC College of Journalism.

2005 could be the year that the BBC emerges as the world leader in participatory media and citizen journalism.

1. Define the BBC’s values. How does citizen journalism and participatory media support the organization’s values? Does participatory media threaten those values in any way?

Over the past few years, all BBC staff have been involved in developing a set of values shared by people across the BBC. These values represent the things we cherish and aspire to, they guide our day-to-day decisions and shape our individual and collective behaviour.

• Trust is the foundation of the BBC: we are independent, impartial and honest
• Audiences are at the heart of everything we do
• We take pride in delivering quality and value for money
• Creativity is the lifeblood of our organisation
• We respect each other and celebrate our diversity so that everyone can give their best
• We are one BBC: great things happen when we work together
These BBC values are supplemented by five journalistic principles:
Truth and Accuracy
We will always strive to establish the truth of what has happened as best we can.BBC journalism will be ro/oted in the highest possible levels of accuracy and precision of language.  It will be well sourced, based on sound evidence, and thoroughly tested. Facts set in their context, rather than opinion, is the essence of BBC journalism. We will be honest and open about what we don’t know and avoid unfounded speculation.

Serving the Public Interest
BBC journalism will prioritise and report stories of significance, striving to make them interesting and relevant to all our audiences. We will be vigorous in trying to drive to the heart of the story, and well informed when explaining it. Our specialist expertise will bring authority and understanding to the complex world in which we all live. We will be robust, but fair and open-minded in asking searching questions of those who hold public office and in reporting that which it is in the public interest to reveal.

The BBC’s news and current affairs journalism will never campaign, but pursue journalistically valid issues and stories, without giving undue prominence to any one agenda. We will provide a comprehensive forum for public debate at all levels.

Impartiality and Diversity of Opinion
For the BBC impartiality is a legal requirement. BBC journalists will report the facts first, understand and explain their context, provide professional judgements where appropriate, but never promote their own personal opinions.

Openness and independence of mind is at the heart of practising impartiality. We will strive to be fair and open minded by reflecting all significant strands of opinion, and by exploring the range and conflict of views. Testing a wide range of views with the evidence is essential if we are to give our audiences the greatest possible opportunity to decide for themselves on the issues of the day.

The BBC is independent of both state and partisan interest, and will strive to be an independent monitor of powerful institutions and individuals. We will make our journalistic judgments for sound editorial reasons, not as the result of improper political or commercial pressure, or personal prejudice. The BBC will always resist undue pressure from all vested interests, and will jealously protect the independence of our editorial judgments on behalf of our audiences. Whatever groups or individuals may wish us to say or do, we will make all decisions based on the BBC’s editorial values.

Our first loyalty is to the BBC’s audiences to whom we are accountable. Their continuing trust in the BBC’s journalism is a crucial part of our contract with them as licence payers. We act in good faith at all times, by dealing fairly and openly with the audience and contributors to our output. We will be open in admitting mistakes when they are made, unambiguous about apologising for them, and must encourage a culture of willingness to learn from them.

I don’t believe participatory media threatens these values in any way. In fact, the opposite, I think a more participatory approach and relationship with audiences strengthens all of these values.

For example, in terms of truth and accuracy — and impartiality and diversity of opinion — these can only be strengthened by being open to more perspectives and the knowledge and understanding of the audience or users. Many argue that truth or impartiality are impossible to achieve. I’m not sure I agree, but I certainly believe that the attempt to achieve them raises standards and that reflecting a wide spread of opinion and perspectives is the best way to attempt to do so.

In terms of serving the public interest, independence and accountability — again these are all strengthened by encouraging participation and being open to the views and the input of a wide range of users. I believe there will always be a place for editorial judgement to be applied — the essence of the brand value of major news operations — but participation from our audience or users is increasingly important in terms of earning trust and respect. Transparency about the newsgathering and selection process is as important as the journalism itself in retaining that trust.

2. At “Whose News?”, a symposium by The Media Center at the American Press Institute and The Nieman Foundation at Harvard in March, you mentioned that the BBC’s role is shifting from a broadcaster and mediator to a facilitator, enabler and teacher. Can you elaborate on this further? What do you hope to facilitate, enable and teach?
The BBC’s mission, when it was established in the 1920’s was to “Inform, Educate and Entertain.” In most respects that still holds good. However we also have to “connect” — both with our audiences and to facilitate our audiences “connecting” with each other. Interactive media, and the changes it is leading in media consumption and culture, means facilitation and “enabling"” of the audience to take part in programmes, to express a view and to contribute are increasingly important. Those are also characteristics entirely aligned with the BBC’s public service role.

The value the British public get from the BBC should go beyond what we broadcast. Teaching media literacy as well as supporting other forms of adult education, and facilitiating what our audiences want to do is going to become increasingly important as the conventional passive relationship between broadcaster and audience breaks down. We believe the BBC, as a strong global broadcaster reaching some 180 million people each week, is uniquely placed to facilitate connection and interaction in a trusted way between different audiences, cultures and countries.

3. Explain the current and future BBC projects in participatory media and citizen journalism.

BBC Digital Storytellinga. Digital Storytelling project
The BBC is keen to hear new voices on its TV, radio and web platforms. Since 2001, Digital Storytelling has been one of our flagship projects to help achieve this. It takes the tools of digital media production into communities across the UK, enabling people to tell their own stories in their own way. 

Through local workshops, held in a portable studio, 10 people at a time learn new skills: crafting scripts, recording voices, laying down music and editing stills and video.

Their stories are produced as short programmes and are broadcast either as inserts to the News, in association with other programmes with related themes - such as the ‘Who Do You Think You Are’ family history series on BBC2, or as stand alone programmes in their own right

To date, more than 500 people of all ages and all walks of life have become programme makers. With the emergence of local TV, many of these people will become regular programme makers for the BBC. 

Digital Storytelling also acts as a practical way of developing IT and media literacy skills. By concentrating on the storytelling though, participants pick up these high tech skills almost without realising it. Many participants had low levels of IT skills prior to attending a workshop, and improved their skills as a result of attending, with over half going on to use the technology in some form since the workshop.

Quotes from participants:
• “It was a peculiar and wonderful feeling to sit in my living room last night and see a story that I made (albeit with a huge amount of help from ‘the team’) going out live on national television.” – Tony Jenkins
• “It was a life affirming, very emotional experience. I learnt new technical skills, and ways of telling accessible, engaging stories. I feel quite evangelical about the whole process.” – Tracy Pallant
• “I accomplished more in these 4 days than I did in 5 years of college!” – Arfon Jones
• “If you can give a voice to people whose voices are rarely heard, then you can encourage social inclusion. People of all ages can take part, learning new skills - all they need to have is a story to tell. And, of course, the archiving of these local stories has a role to play in community development.” – Kate Strudwick, Arts Development Officer, Caerphilly Borough Council.

BBC Island BloggingA further development of this at a very local level is Island-Blogging. In 2003, Argyll and Bute Council, on the West Coast of Scotland, joined a Scottish Executive project called Digital Communities, issuing every household in the North Argyll Islands with a pc and narrowband web connection.

Following this initiative, and working directly with islanders, BBC Scotland Interactive, launched a participatory media project called Island-Blogging. Using a blog interface built by the team, bloggers aged 17 to 70 began to write about their lives and the issues which affected them — from being storm-bound in the Spring to the delights of the local horticultural show, complete with pictures.

Opening their blogs up to comments lead to contributions and, sometimes, heated debates from other islands, the mainland UK and around the world. Subjects like wind turbine energy prompted comments from around the globe while post-match debate over the Coll Bar’s Pool ladder generated posts from Coll and the neighbouring islands. Some stories — like the beaching of a whale on Coll — actually broke first on Island-Blogging and were quickly picked up, in terms of content and contacts, by the the mainstream Scottish media.

The project has been a great success — for the island-bloggers who appreciate being given a voice where, due to their remote location, they have previously felt ignored and their appreciative audience who are now, too, part of the Island community — wherever they are. This project has truly connected communities — from island to island, island to mainland and island to world. 

The next step for BBC Scotland is to roll Island-Blogging out beyond North Argyll to all 95 inhabited Scottish Islands.

BBC iCanb. iCAN
BBC iCan is a website to help people get involved in their community and take first steps in addressing issues that concern them.  The site is a place where users can find others who share their concern, exchange information and advice, and work with others to organise a campaign.  There is also material provided by the BBC — such as authoritative guides on how to negotiate civic life, briefings on issues, and a database of organisations covering about a thousand different issues.

iCan was launched in November 2003, following a review of political coverage after turnout at the last general election fell below 60 percent. It is aimed at people who feel that the mainstream process of politics — at Westminster and the town hall, and its coverage in the media - is too remote and irrelevant to their lives. The number of users has grown over the period since launch to about 170,000 per month. Currently there are 14,000 are registered members.

Much of the strength of iCan derives from the impartiality that the BBC brings to the project.  It is a neutral space in which anyone can put an issue on the agenda, as long as they comply with basic house rules.  Participants are very likely to encounter opponents to their point of view, and the environment encourages them to engage in a dialogue.  Contributions in iCan are generally well argued and constructive.  There is a remarkable lack of flaming (i.e. aggressively controversial material).  We believe this is because people are asked to contribute using their real name so are more accountable than if they were to hide behind a pseudonym.

iCan not only provides a new avenue to participation in civic life.  It is also having an impact on the BBC’s editorial agenda. BBC programmes at the national regional and local levels have been able to use iCan as source of inspiration for covering stories and issues which would not have come to light through other means. This helps programmes reflect more accurately the grassroots concerns of their audiences, and make their coverage more relevant.

iCan will relaunch later this year with a new name, a new site design and some new functionality.  The changes are aimed at making the site more easy to use.  Because iCan is unique, there was no model anywhere in the world for us to follow when we were designing so what we launched was very much an experiment which we knew would have to be redesigned once we had observed how people use it.  The good news is that the underlying functionality seems to be meeting users’ needs quite effectively.  But some of the user interface is too complicated.  We intend to address that, and also make users more visible to each other than they are at present. 

BBC Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxyc. h2g2 - Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
In the mid-1990s, author Douglas Adams joined a group called The Digital Village with the idea of exploiting the vast potential of the internet. Their first project, Starship Titanic, was an online game with no end goals - in effect a complete virtual world for people to live in.

Their next idea was to create an online guide in the same vein as the concept in Douglas’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy books. The website was named h2g2 (after the two H’s and two G’s in the title of the books) and was launched on the BBC’s technology show Tomorrow’s World on 28 April 1999.

The idea of the site was to encourage people from all around the world to write about Life, the Universe and Everything — factual entries on all manner of subjects. When the Digital Village became a victim of the dotcom crash in 2001, BBCi bought h2g2 and invested in developing its engine, DNA, for use on other communities, such as iCan and Collective.

An editorial process was developed soon after launch in which members of the public select the best entries for inclusion in the Edited Guide, other volunteers sub-edit the entries and then new ones are published each working day. We now have 30 volunteer sub-editors working on batches of entries, the same amount of Scouts (who find the entries for us) and also a group of volunteers (the Aces) who welcome new users and show them around the site.

What this means is that the site is now created and sustained through user-generated content. Every now and then, the small team of in-house staff create talking points to guide research for areas that are not already covered in the Guide (such as entries on the Great Fire of London or Sherlock Holmes), but for the most part the ideas, research, finished entries and even updates of older material all come from the users themselves.

As our site can be divided mainly between two elements which complement: Editorial and Community, our goals are to continue creating high-quality editorial content while at the same time keeping the community active. It’s a symbiotic relationship.

While the idea of the Guide was pretty much fully formed at the start, what took Douglas and the team by surprise was a living, evolving community that formed around the Guide activities. Some long-standing members have never written for the Guide, but like the idea of hanging around and chatting to others. While this means that, like any community, there are some disruptive members, the comunity is reactive — i.e., self-policing. Their respect and love for the site ensures they are quick to identify disruptive elements and alert us to them.

In 2005, h2g2 launched a mobile application that can access over 7,000 Edited Guide entries through ‘Smartphones’ and browser-enabled PDAs. Now, users can access the site while on the move, giving the closest representation yet of what Douglas Adams envisaged back in the 1970s.

d. Global Conversation
The Global Conversation is a new project being developed by the BBC’s Global News Division. It involves engaging with our 180 million strong audience, to develop and modernize our news coverage. We want to connect more strongly with our audiences and also connect our audiences across languages and continents on all the media platforms they use — whether radio, TV, the internet or phone.

So what will the Global Conversation be? It will change the way we report the news and how we find and develop news stories. New technologies now allow our audiences to become part of our production teams, generating and adding their content to conventional sources. They will enable us to inform and connect people in new ways. We want to engage our listeners, viewers, readers and users, harnessing their contributions, ideas, opinions, photos, stories, videos and feedback to generate new agendas, new angles and new content.

The Global Conversation is also about bringing together our audiences, and allowing people to connect with each other, to open up a dialogue and to allow them to contribute to our output.

As well as changing ‘how we do things round here’, we are also planning to rebrand the major interactive news areas, across all platforms, under one brand. This is to help users know that they are being invited to participate. We are investigating what that brand should be at the moment.  The platform which will lead the Global Conversation will vary from market to market, depending on how developed and well connected that market is. We need to be flexible and bring everyone together through the medium of their choice — for example, SW radios in Africa, the internet in North America, mobile phones in the Middle East and TV in Asia. To make the Global Conversation work, we need better ways to manage all the thousands of emails and user contributions we receive. So we are also investing in new technology to help use manage, share and exploit of this material across different media.

BBC Creative Archivee. Creative Archive
The BBC Creative Archive (press release) will allow users to download from BBC website to their PCs, free of charge, clips from BBC television and radio programmes and a limited number of programmes for non-commercial use. The service will work on both narrowband and broadband internet connections and users can keep the extracts, manipulate them and share them with others.

Access to the Creative Archive is UK only as we believe the UK public effectively owns the archive having paid for it through public funding (the BBC licence fee paid by every TV owning household). Having said that, there are clearly a lot of associated rights issues to be worked through.

The BBC iMP (interactive media player) have yet been launched so I has to be briefer in what I can say. iMP has been designed to offer viewers a catch-up service that will enable viewers to download a programme for up to seven days either side of transmission on terrestrial television. Creative Archive is designed to offer content to download that has passed the seven day window and the window for commercial exploitation.

BBC Have Your Say4. Briefly explain what types of user-generated content (UGC) tools you have on the BBC sites (submit photos, forums, etc). How successful have they been?
We are very keen to encourage users to submit content to our websites, and in particular encourage users to contribute photos and messages when they are at the centre of breaking news stories. At times we also actively solicit images from users on particular topics, such as Islam in the 21st century

We have a number of examples of how we are actively using UGC from across our news sites:

Beslan Siege: This was a key news event. BBC Russian website received hundreds of emails on the event which were also presented on the BBC News Have Your Say page.

Asian Tsunamis: The BBC News Have Your Say website received 25,000 emails within the first week of the tsunamis. These included reactions from those affected by the tsunamis and those concerned at the well-being of people known to them. Some users also sent in photos and videos of tsunami-affected areas. Here are some links to user-generated content: Asia quake disaster: Gallery 1, Gallery 2, Eyewitness: Survivor’s tale in Thailand.

Special pages on people missing in Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka, India and Maldives were set up and were successful in reuniting several families.

Ukrainian Elections: The controversy over election results in Ukraine attracted more than 4,000 e-mails and letters to the BBC Russian website. Some were from protestors at the Central Square, who provided an interesting account of what it was like protesting in sub-zero temperatures.

Fleeing Falluja: Thousands of Iraqis fled the city of Falluja in the weeks leading up to a military assault by the U.S. forces. BBC Arabic spoke to three such families, who described the feeling of terror as violence flared and the kindness of relatives who helped them despite the risks involved. Examples include: Fleeing Falluja: Families speak out, Eyewitness: Farewell to Falluja.

Iraq Logs: This ten-part log reflected the daily lives of eight Baghdad residents – including a U.S. army official and a UK citizen. The panel was put together by online and BBC Arabic teams and presented life beyond the statistics of the conflict.

Chechen Anniversary: On the 10th anniversary of the Chechen campaign, BBC Russian organised an interesting Q&A on their website. The readers sent in their questions and these were responded to by people living in Grozny, the capital of Chechnya. The event was organised with the support of a local newspaper. Part of this effort was a discussion between the prominent politicians and public figures associated with the Chechen conflict.

Universal Children’s Day: On Universal Children’s Day (Saturday 20 November 2004), BBC’s language sites spoke to a number of homeless or underprivileged children. Part of this effort was a picture-gallery of an Afghan refugee boy in Pakistan, who had cataract in one eye. The picture-gallery prompted many offers of help from our users.Also see: In pictures: Tehran’s street children

e-Surveys: We are conducting e-surveys in nine different languages (English, Arabic, Spanish, Portuguese, Russian, Persian, Chinese, Hindi and Urdu). The U.S. elections e-survey attracted more than 75,000 responses. This was followed by an e-survey on the Millennium Development Goals which was quoted by Chancellor Gordon Brown in a speech. The last e-survey of the year was on the Global Environment, which attracted almost 13,000 responses.

5. Why haven’t you offered blogging tools to the UK masses, much like the French newspaper Le Monde did with their subscribers?
We are currently starting a project to look at what full blogging software we could use on our site. This will evaluate if we should extend the capability of our blogging tools. At present we publish selected BBC reporter and citizen journalist logs in multiple languages, we are considering if and how we could incorporate an audience feedback loop into these so that they become full blogs rather than logs.

BBC Training6. The BBC already has a fairly advanced online training site, with courses, resources, and even free access to the BBC style guide. What was the motivation for setting up this site? originally existed to market the BBC’s face-to-face training courses to the media industry in the UK. As online training became available to BBC staff via the BBC’s intranet based online system learn.gateway it became apparent that this material should also be made available to various groups via the external website. The following groups were the considered primary audience:

• Purchasers of a ‘blended’ BBC Training course (as well as providing training courses internally, BBC Training also markets those courses to the media industry at large — from big organisations to sole trading freelancers. Many courses these days have a Course Companion — a basic website with the trainer’s notes and supporting materials from a course. As a course can be attended by people outside the BBC, these need to be in a place where they can get them too — i.e. on an external website.)
• Freelance staff working in the UK media industry unable to access learn.gateway via the BBC intranet

The following secondary audience groups were also considered:
• Media students
• Anyone making their own programmes interested in developing their skills

The full range of courses on learn.gateway were checked for copyright clearance, fair trading issues and technical suitability and then published on

How successful has this been? Stats Q1 2005

7. Following up on that, you mentioned that the BBC is planning its own Journalism school. What can you tell us about this project? Who is it for? What do you intend on teaching? Will you have any partnerships with other universities in the project? Will a U.S. citizen be able to take any of these courses?
The BBC College of Journalism should be launched later this year. It is primarily aimed at the 7,000 journalists employed by the BBC from local radio and TV through to national and international news services. Having said that we may be open to allowing others to take part in some courses. It will be based around a series of short modules, many taken at or close to the workplace and some e-learning modules. We have had a lot of success with interactive learning in the BBC and very strong positive feedback from the staff. We hope to be able to offer some form of independently recognised accreditation for having completed a set of modules. The initiative is in response to the debate in the UK (as in the U.S.) about journalistic standards and the media’s role in society. The BBC’s journalism is the cornerstone of the organisation and if we aspire to be the best in the world we need to provide world-class training and development. We have discussed plans, and taken advice from some U.S. J-Schools and may find partnerships with them. It will also mark a shift in emphasis from production skills training (which has been the mainstay of BBC journalist training for some time) towards editorial issues and ethics — based around the journalism values I outlined earlier ( see Question 1) .

8. U.S. media clearly have economic and shareholder pressures that the BBC does not. In your opinion, why does U.S. media fear participatory, bottom-up publishing? Why are they so hesitant to collaborate with their audience, when the BBC is not?
Perhaps they should answer this not me! I guess it’s because there is no clear business model which is as robust as the old one was. The BBC, being publicly funded in the main part, can concentrate on quality and reach. Commercial providers have to satisfy shareholders and the bottom line. That probably means we can afford to take risks, by focusing purely on the public value of a new service, that a commercial broadcaster can’t.

The success criteria for a public broadcaster is about the quality of the audience or user experience, not financial. I’m sure robust economic models will emerge. Their dilemma is the old business model is in rapid decline before a new one is proven. In my view that should be the moment to take a risk … but it’s their call not mine!

9. What is the BBC’s policy on the copyright of consumer-generated content?
We view UGC as being given to us on a royalty-free, non-exclusive licence which we can use in any way we want, on any platform. (For more clarification, see the BBC terms and conditions on UGC.)

Do you archive user-contributed content, such as photos, video, stories and comments?
If we use UGC in a story in whatever form then it stays with the archive of that story or site.

Has the BBC considered licensing any of their content under a Creative Commons license?
The vast majority of BBC content is actually a mix of BBC-generated content and 3rd party content (especially from news agencies); thus we are bound by our agency agreements to limit such use to BBC outlets. The Creative Archive (see above) will be our main step in this direction.

10. Which news sites in the U.S. and other countries do you respect for their approach to participation and why?
I’m not aware of any major U.S. news organisation really embracing participation in the mainstream — they may do, I don’t pretend to know the market thoroughly. Nor are the BBC initiatives yet centre stage in our news operations (other than online). I was struck by Associated Press CEO Tom Curley’s speech to the Online News Association last year pointing to news as conversation rather than lecture as the way forward. It will be interesting to see how an organisation like the AP embraces that idea.

Obviously I read and respect a lot of U.S. bloggers, although I don’t count them as major news sources and they can be very insular. Blogs for me are at their most interesting when reflecting first hand experience, specialist insight or eye witness reporting. When they look out into the world rather than in at the “blogosphere”.  In other words when they move into the realm of original newsgathering. 

Chat The Planet is an interesting project I’ve just discovered. The idea is great (and close to our Global Conversation).

Have any questions for Richard Sambrook?
If you have additional questions, post them on the comments page. Or you can e-mail him directly at: [email protected]

Related links
Creative licence: The BBC, Channel 4, the British Film Institute (BFI) and the Open University have joined together to create the creative archive licence, which launches later this week.
Holding on to Objectivity: A lecture Sambrook gave at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in Oct. 2004
A free press for a free society: The media have been accused of undermining democracy. But, argues Sambrook, an independent press is essential to freedom. Article in the 2005 Global Agenda magazine by Sambrook.
Sambrook’s keynote address in 2002 at the “International News and the Media: The Impact of September 11” conference
Sambrook interview where he talks about the Hutton Inquiry, impartiality and his time as a Birkbeck student
Sambrook’s Flickr Photostream

Posted on Apr 11, 2005 | 7:25 am EST

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