BBC Digital Transformation Festival Media

BBC Global News measures up its pandemic responsibilities as 'political attacks die down'


By John McCarthy, Opinion Editor

March 17, 2020 | 5 min read

BBC News is assessing its role in covering the coronavirus pandemic, weighing up how to make good on the public's trust and balance fair criticism of government health policies without hindering its general public health objectives.

BBC Global

'The world will never be the same again': How the pandemic alters media and marketing

Kicking off The Drum’s Digital Transformation Festival was a panel exploring BBC News’ response to the global pandemic. With the UK among many nations moving to favour a lockdown, the state broadcaster is seeing an increase in views online and linear as the public moves to remain informed.

Over the last week, the government has faced questions around its public health policies - or how they were communicated to a public looking for guidance.

Geeta Guru-Murthy, journalist and presenter at BBC Global News, weighed up the unprecedented responsibilities of the broadcaster.

“Politics feel pretty small at the moment. For the first time in our lifetimes, we are facing the most critical of questions. [As a broadcaster] we’ve never had to make these decisions with the news stories we cover - and I started as an anchor when September 11 broke. We’ve covered horrendous events in the Middle East and around the world.

“It is important to remember, this is one of many problems many are facing around the world but this is a global story that has moved very fast. There’s a scientific question and many journalists are not hugely informed. We have to ask difficult scientific and political questions.”

In the wake of Brexit, the government had been asking questions of the BBC and how it will be funded in the future. But Guru-Murphy said that the “political attacks we see on the BBC have died down now the government has something bigger to deal with.”

She noted that there has been an uptick in viewership, up around 7% to 15% depending on the day, proving the value it still holds during a time of crisis.

“Now people are turning to trusted sources when there is so much fake news out there about the medicines and treatments you can use. In terms of newsbrands and organizations of trust, including the scientific bodies, it is equally incumbent upon us to question those in charge," she said.

Speaking on the public’s perception of the pandemic, Christian Fraser, journalist and presenter at BBC Global News, said: “We have to put trust in experts again. It has been an issue since the middle of last week. [This government’s] off the record briefings need to stop. The comms need to be coordinated.”

With the media looking to act responsibly and governments trying to forge the least damaging path, brands have an opportunity to make lasting impressions and even partake in some social good. Fraser noted some good behaviour from brands, for example retailer Iceland set aside time for the older population to shop in its stores in Northern Ireland.

Guru-Murthy said brands should be thinking about the long-term opportunities that good customer service and support will bring when responding to the challenges they currently face.

“Say I had airline tickets booked, if they treat me in a way I think it is fair, refund me or moves the flight, I am more likely to be loyal to them. Same for engineering companies that switch up their production to hand soaps or hotels that offer beds to those in need. There will be a PR benefit to that.”

Gemma Greaves, the outgoing chief executive of The Marketing Society outlined an opportunity for brands to build trust now – if they show real utility or selflessness. “Those that take a real leadership role will shine. Brands are taking public decisions and are leading the way forward.”

With the disruption guaranteed, brands are assessing the core fundamentals of their businesses, be that remote working, supply chains or data, according to Gordon Young, editor-in-chief of The Drum.

There are opportunities for bravery to come. But he claimed that there are also a lot of tough decisions to be made ahead of an economic slowdown. “Brands are now looking at survival, they are going to have to make many decisions that they are delaying.

“Advertising is integrated into the economy, it is not a separate sector, it is the canary in the coalmine and the canaries are coughing like they have coronavirus.”

On the positives from the pandemic, he concluded: “This is the biggest remote working experiment in history. The world will never be the same again.”

You can watch the full session here on The Drum's dedicated Digital Transformation Festival microsite.

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