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Iran’s user generation

In Communicate, Journalism, Published journalism, Q&A, Television on November 24, 2010 at 3:55 pm

Former head of BBC Persian Rob Beynon tells Communicate that social networks may have been pivotal in the Iranian elections, but they don’t mean news is dead

Originally published in Communicate, February 2010

Rob Beynon is CEO of DMA Media, the consultancy firm that helped Abu Dhabi Media Company set up twofour54, its media hub. DMA was also involved in launching the BBC’s Arabic and Farsi television services, and in June 2009 Beynon was the acting head of BBC Persian as the Iranian election result sparked mass protests, rioting and outbreaks of violence.
Communicate sat down with Beynon to ask him about the role user-generated content played in the channel’s coverage of events.

Tell us about your coverage of the election fall out.
It was a period of huge tension and activity in Iran, and we saw all the activities around the time of the presidential elections. Then we saw the explosion of the use of user-generated content that this created, with thousands and thousands of files and stills and videos being sent every day from people in Iran with mobile phones and cameras. This was largely filtered and contextualized by the journalists at BBC Persian for the rest of the BBC. We said at the time that we have to put this into context and we have to source it because we’re the BBC, not YouTube.
The channel is broadcast out of London via satellite to Iran and Afghanistan, and it was a huge testament to their professionalism; the journalists felt very emotionally involved in the story, many of them having been recruited from Iran for this channel.
There were pressures from both sides about what was being said, and they behaved very professionally and impartially. Of all the start-ups I’ve been involved in – which is several dozen around the world – that was, in many ways, the most moving, and it gives me the most humility to have been involved in it because the team was so impressive in the way they delivered on that story. There were quite a lot of extreme pressures from all sides.

What was special about the content?
Of all the big stories recently, it’s been the best example of where user-generated content has been the major element in gathering the story. A lot of very interesting user-generated content came out of Burma a couple of years ago, but the important thing about Iran was that the quantity was great and the range was great, and the interactivity was greater. There were people who were actually able to take part in the programs and take part in the debate, often at great personal risk.

How did people take part?

We were doing several daily interactive programs in which people could text, e-mail, and phone in, and we had no shortage of people doing that from Iran, and other countries as well. I think news broadcasters now can’t ignore the fact that the whole thing is a two-way process. You’re now never further away from spot news, a breaking news story, than somebody with a mobile phone. You don’t wait to send a crew, you find out if somebody is there who’s got a mobile phone and have them film.
It doesn’t mean that the journalist’s role is gone; in fact, it means that journalists are called to account more and more, because you have to source this stuff, you have to contextualize it, you have to provide the analysis. But it does mean that you’ve got huge potential to instantly cover things that are happening.

How should television channels capitalize on this content?
You make it second nature to people to say, “I’ve walked around the corner and something’s happening; the mobile phone comes out and I send it to my favorite broadcaster.” We always used to say that Americans would stand around the corner waiting to be interviewed in a vox pop because they were so articulate when a crew came up and asked them a question. Now, in many places, people are so savvy that they’re shooting the thing on the iPhone or the mobile phone and then uploading it and sending it off straight away. It’s all done without hesitation.
For the broadcaster, for the news channel, the emphasis has to be, “What’s the second way? How do I provide the in-depth quality coverage? How do I provide the analysis? How do I do the comparative coverage?” You’ll still need high-quality coverage and you’ll still need to be able to put it into context. Otherwise it’s YouTube; YouTube is fantastic but YouTube isn’t going to tell you anything deep about anything.

How do you determine the accuracy of user-generated content?
You don’t know the accuracy, that’s the problem. You don’t know whether that’s right or that’s wrong, or what the context of that is, versus that. The broadcaster hopefully will be able to do that.

So will journalism stop being about breaking stories and start being about analyzing news?
I think journalists will always break stories. For spot news, if you can get the cameraman there you should, because he is a trained professional. It’s like when there’s an accident. The paramedic is the first line of defense and then you send the consultant; if the consultant happens to be in the neighborhood, good, but if he’s in the hospital, you bring the victim to him.

After the excitement of its launch, how is BBC Persian looking now?
There are only two international channels that broadcast in Farsi into Iran that do any sort of news coverage. One is BBC Persian, and the other is Voice of America. Voice of America does a perfectly good job, but it is directly funded by the State Department in the US, while the BBC has an arm’s-length relationship with the UK’s Foreign Office. So, effectively, the Foreign Office outsources all the content and journalism to the BBC. This is the same as any other domestic BBC journalism or BBC World or anything else.
BBC Persian is hugely watched in Iran. It’s impossible to tell what the audience figures are, but it’s hugely watched. It’s pivotal in events, and we’ll see how events move in the next six to 12 months. I think it will continue to be pivotal. While the activities immediately after the elections were going on, it was providing the only channel for people inside Iran to see what was going on in their streets.

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