‘Totally Committed’: BBC World Service Director Responds to FPA Editor’s Plea to Save Focus on Africa

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Many thanks for your Open Letter To The BBC published on the FrontPageAfrica website. 

Dear Mr. Sieh,

 Thank you very much for your open letter published in your publication, FrontPageAfrica, about the future of the Focus on Africa radio programme.

 I was really moved to read your heartfelt praise of this programme which has for decades been a source of pride to us at BBC World Service.  As you rightly say, Focus on Africa has been central to the BBC’s coverage of Africa – for the Continent and for the rest of the world.  And it was the immense power of the Focus on Africa brand that we built on when, a decade ago, we launched the TV programme of the same name, which turned into yet another BBC flagship platform for top African journalism, reporting, and analysis. 

However, I disagree when your wonderful ode to the programme, remembering some of its pivotal broadcasts, takes a different tone. 

You state your disagreements with the changes we are proposing as part of our move to a digital-first service in Africa, concerned lest “this and the proposal to close several other language programmes will mean the African Service as we know it will be a thing of the past”.

Let me first put your mind at rest.  The BBC is totally committed to bringing impartial, independent journalism to the continent. 

 We are not closing any language service, and we will continue to serve audiences in 11 African languages on a variety of platforms, and via some radio and TV broadcasts where they serve large audiences. 

 We are in tough financial circumstances and have had to make difficult decisions.  But as the person leading this change – and taking many other decisions of equal weight to do with the BBC’s news operations in other equally crucial markets – I would like to reassure you that, rather than “relegate” Focus on Africa, we want to make it even more relevant to its evolving audience.  Audience needs and habits are changing fast, and we know there is huge potential for digital growth across the Continent and for building deeper engagement with our journalism.

I would like to reiterate the fact that the programme’s radio listenership will continue to enjoy it just as they have for decades: on BBC World Service radio.  Focus on Africa will continue to be part of our two existing Africa radio streams.

The fact that Focus on Africa will be pre-recorded very close to the actual transmission will not take anything away from the urgency and top quality of its journalism, whether it reports latest developments, holds key figures to account, or provides context and analysis. 

Any breaking headlines about Africa, that are not featured in the programme, will be covered by other live news programmes across our radio programming.  In fact, the current proposal means an increase to our live news coverage across World Service radio – which is, of course, a 24-hour radio station.  In addition, live and breaking news will be available on our digital output.  At the same time, the programme’s podcast format will add to its value, making Focus on Africa available to the ever-growing number of users of this platform, in Africa as well as globally. 

You are also concerned that “the real voices of Africa will no longer be able to tell the real African stories and news as it happens signaling a rather controversial paradigm shift poised to slowly and partially erase the continent from the BBC programming”.   In fact, our global news output features, and will continue to showcase, expert voices from all our African services which underpin the BBC’s news coverage of the Continent. 

As part of our new proposals, we want Focus on Africa TV programme to be presented from Nairobi thus bringing the programme – and African voices and talent – even closer to its primary audiences.  The importance of the African audience and of African journalists in telling the stories of their continent can be heard across the World Service in Africa.  

Once again, I would really like to thank you for your honest and passionate praise and defence of Focus on Africa.  We are looking forward to preserving its strengths and building on them, to make it work for new generations of African and global audiences. 

Sincerely Yours,

Liliane Landor

Senior Controller of BBC News International Services
and Director of BBC World Service

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