In conversation with Mary Hockaday, BBC World Service Controller and Charlie Taylor, Series Producer BBC World Questions 

BBC World Questions  is a series of monthly international debate programmes recorded on location around the world.

Each edition is led entirely by the audience who can make comments and put questions to a panel of leading thinkers and politicians. 

Created in partnership with the British Council the radio recordings are broadcast globally to the BBC World Service’s weekly audience of 97 million listeners. 

Mary Hockaday, BBC World Service Controller explains, ‘we wanted to hear from people about their concerns and passions and provide a platform for them to connect to their politicians – which isn’t always available. In Britain we’re used to a format like Any Questions or Question Time. But these are a rarity around the world.’

Both brands are regarded as major parts of the UK’s international trust-building capacity. For four years the World Questions partnership has worked to build trust through shared values and by facilitating democracy in action. 

Charlie Taylor, Series Producer BBC World Questions comments, ‘there's a high level of trust between both organisations. It means that we can achieve greater things together than we can do on our own, and World Questions is a brilliant example of that.’

Democracy in action

The programmes offer citizens of a given country a platform to question a panel of experts and leaders on the key issues that matter most to the audience. It allows listeners to gain an understanding of countries in context, beyond news headlines or social media siloes.

Through World Questions, debates are created where people can see politicians on a stage and can ask questions directly of them. Most importantly they can disagree with them without fear. It’s a very simple thing, but a very powerful one.

Providing a forum where people can trust that they'll be safe and that they will have information honestly provided to them in a carefully balanced and moderated way is invaluable. 

Seeing democracy in action can be an impressive sight. Mary says, ‘the passion of an audience whether in Ethiopia, Hungary, South Korea or Brazil is quite something to behold in the auditorium and to hear on the radio’. 

World insights: COVID-19 

During the initial spread of COVID-19 from March 2020, the programmes have expanded to span audience questions across four continents so far, revealing the similarities and differences in COVID-19 concerns. 

While no continent has a single story to tell, the discussions revealed similarities between neighbouring nations. 

What comes through from all the episodes of World Questions is how the impact of COVID-19 is personal. The impact is much broader than epidemiological.

Charlie: ‘COVID-19 is a very social and political disease. Although my fellow Producer Helen Towner and I have had had public health officers and experts on our panels, the questions that people have wanted to raise and the things that we debated have been about responses to and impacts of the pandemic.’ 

Perhaps the strongest themes were how to balance safety and infection against hunger, and whether lockdown measures have impeded freedoms and harmed human rights in certain countries. 

As, Dr Shahid Jameel, leading virologist commented in the Asia programme: ‘Did we take a public health problem and make it into a law and order problem?’

However, the debates also highlight a shared hope and trust across the globe that when we come through this crisis, we will emerge a more robust, collaborative and empathetic world.

September’s episode will focus on the USA, ahead of the November presidential elections. 

Listen to the most recent editions:

Virtual democracy in action

Usually recorded with a live audience, physical distancing and travel restrictions pushed the programme to adapt. Potential audience members are invited to contribute through the British Council’s wide-reaching social media channels. 

The audience poses questions to a panel by dialling in from their different locations. 

This also allows for wider participation and broader geographic representation. Attending by phone is a lighter commitment, opening up a much broader pool of panellists. 

For instance, April’s Europe programme brought together Dunja Mijatovic, Commissioner for Human Rights at the Council of Europe, Margaret Harris, a World Health Organisation official, Richard Horton, Editor in Chief of The Lancet, Nathalie Tocci, political analyst and Director of the Institute of International Affairs and Danae Kyriakopoulou, economist from the Official Monetary and Financial Institutions Forum, an independent financial think tank. 

In the future, this virtual way of working may open doors that were previously closed to us, for example in places where it might be difficult to debate due to security concerns. 

The trust the British Council is afforded in each country encourages people to raise the questions that are significant to them. 

Some things are lost by going virtual. Charlie explains, ‘a live audience can be swayed as they hear different arguments and see different points of view, they can enter the room with one opinion and leave with another and you can feel this in the room. The atmosphere can spur the politicians on to say more than they might, and breakdown or build up resistance between them’. 

Created in partnership

World Questions not only shares a population’s concerns with the world through English. It makes a real contribution to a pluralistic, democratic culture in the places where the programme is staged.  

‘We feel we are contributing to the development of democracy. In the places where we stage our debate, we're supporting people in speaking truth to power and exercising freedom of expression, whilst being the standard bearers for honest factual reporting’, Charlie says. 

Charlie remarks ‘The aim of the programme is to create a forum where truth can be said to power. This is a cornerstone of democracy.’  

He provides an example from a previous World Questions debate which took place in February 2020 in Lagos, Nigeria.

Nigeria is a country that has returned to democracy. The opposition won the election and recently there was a peaceful transfer of power. But it’s still a place where there’s a benefit to people getting into the habit of ‘doing democracy’ continues Charlie, ‘taking part in debates, asking direct questions and making comments openly in front of powerful people.’

Following the debate in Lagos, Charlie remembers the British Council Head of Operations approaching him, visibly moved, saying that through this partnership a great service had been done that day. 

British values

The two partners’ shared values of commitment to support free, honest and open debate and freedom of expression underpin and strengthen the partnership. 

These shared values are often associated with being ‘British’, bringing to mind Benjamin Zephaniah’s British Council poem.

‘We’re planting seeds to harvest hope … We rant about democracy, much love free speech and governance, we are British through and through …’

In a recent Ipsos MORI soft power perceptions survey, BBC World Service and the British Council came first and second respectively as the best-known cultural relations organisations across the 36 countries surveyed. 

‘We’re extremely happy to be seen to be representing values which seem to be British, particularly values of openness, following the democratic path and freedom of expression and extremely proud to be associated with the broad-minded British Council who share these values,’ Charlie says

How did it start? 

Charlie: ‘the idea came when I was working on an earlier partnership with the British Council in Istanbul. The British Council Director Turkey asked if BBC World Service would consider returning to Turkey, to broadcast Any Questions.’ 

Charlie continues ‘To broadcast a programme dealing largely with the UK’s domestic politics in Istanbul, would perhaps have been slightly eccentric. But the suggestion gave me the idea of remaking Any Questions into a global version.' 

'Steve Titherington, Senior Commissioner for the World Service led the way in making it happen and together with Executive Editor Rebecca Stratford we designed a format that works fairly and smoothly in differing environments around the world.'

'A large public audience gathered with the help of the British Council, puts debate points to a panel of politicians and experts in the host country. The audience takes part in the debate which is broadcast worldwide on ‘The World’s Radio Station’.'

Charlie: ‘I saw the real strength in it for supporting freedom of speech and expression, demonstrating the ability to tell truth to power and showing democracy in action to countries all over the world.’

And, so BBC World Questions was born – a way to do more global debate, more regularly and more grounded in particular places and communities.

Mary comments that ‘working with the British Council in the UK and around the world has enabled us to create highly successful events on the ground’. 

The long-standing experience and in-depth local knowledge of the British Council is key to creating World Questions. In particular, country teams’ awareness of local sensitivities and cultural norms allows each programme to be specifically tailored to its context and publicised accordingly. 

Combined with the BBC World Service’s broadcasting expertise, editorial insight and experience, it’s a partnership that has gathered real momentum over the past four years.

* With thanks to Mary Hockaday, BBC World Service Controller and Charlie Taylor, Series Producer, BBC World Questions, BBC World Service