Grade says BBC news staff must become less defensive

BBC chairman
Michael Grade has criticised the corporation’s journalists for having
been too slow in responding to complaints and too quick to say “We’re
the BBC, we don’t get things wrong”.

Grade, who was giving the
Cudlipp lecture at the London College of Communications, said: “The
hardest kind of change to make in any organisation is culture change.
And the BBC’s culture of handling complaints has not always been
appropriate.

“The instinctive response to a complaint has not
always been: ‘Let’s find out if there is anything in this’. Rather, it
has tended to be: ‘We don’t get things wrong, so you must be mistaken’.”

Grade
said changes had been implemented since the Hutton and Neil reports:
“The BBC has to turn itself into an organisation open to external
challenge, not defensive about it. In the words of the Neil Report, it
has to: ‘Develop a system and a culture that encourages fast
clarification and unambiguous correction’.”

Grade highlighted as
bad practice the way in which the BBC immediately defended itself three
months ago when Middle East reporter Barbara Plett was criticised.

Plett,
in a From Our Own Correspondent piece on BBC Radio 4, had spoken of how
she had cried when the helicopter carrying Palestinian leader Yasser
Arafat left his West Bank compound as he was taken away for medical
treatment.

Grade said: “The BBC received many complaints. Its
first response was the old one – a public statement that defended the
output come what may. That was the wrong response – it reflected the
instincts of the old culture.

“When the new director of news,
Helen Boaden, heard the statement she was surprised. It did not reflect
her expressed view about the piece or that of her senior team. So she
changed it – to make clear that aspects of the broadcast had been
misjudged.

“What this boils down to is trust. If audiences have
the confidence that the BBC really is open to external challenge, and
that when it gets things wrong it will act honestly and transparently,
then audiences will continue to place their trust in BBC journalism as
they have done for more than three quarters of a century.”

He
said it was encouraging that last week’s survey in Press Gazette showed
that the BBC remains Britain’s most trusted source of news.

Grade
claimed that the quality that underpins trust in BBC journalism is
impartiality and that he believed passionately it was possible to
achieve a journalism that is “fair, open-minded and shows a respect for
truth”.

In a reflection of the views put forward by John Lloyd of
the Financial Times , Grade argued that BBC journalists should not slip
into “the knee-jerk cynicism that dismisses every statement from every
politician as, by definition, a lie”.

He also admitted that
serious news values were coming under increasing strain and accepted
“the BBC may indeed have unwittingly contributed to this by the
emphasis on audience accessibility in news in recent years”.

He
claimed: “This may have created a tension – on the one hand the
expectation that editors should deliver the traditional, serious BBC
news agenda; on the other, a perceived pressure on editors to win
audiences – with the result that a certain confusion may have taken
root about which was the right road to follow”.

In a reference to
intense competition in broadcast news, Grade asked: “Should the BBC
respond by changing its standards or softening its news agenda?

Not while I’m chairman.

“The BBC has a duty to set the gold standard in news reporting, in accuracy, in impartiality, in creating better understanding.”

BBC news agenda

GREENSLADE ACCUSES BBC

After
his speech, Grade was tackled by media commentator Roy Greenslade who
accused the BBC of having its news agenda set by partisan national
newspapers.

He gave an example of
Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell being on the receiving end of a tough
BBC interview on 24-hour drinking, which Greenslade said was based on
the Daily Mail’s opposition to the change in licensing laws.

Grade
replied: “There are times when the press break stories you cannot
ignore.” He also said the BBC’s coverage of the 24-hour drinking issue,
had been “comprehensive”.

Foreign bureaux

PRAISE FOR TSUNAMI COVERAGE

Grade
defended the BBC’s coverage of the tsunami disaster and stressed the
role played by its foreign bureaux, which some BBC journalists fear may
lose staff in cutbacks.

“Contrary to
what you may have read in some newspapers, the BBC was ahead of the
game because, unlike many of its competitors, it already had people on
the ground in its foreign bureaux close to where the news was breaking.
These were journalists who had real knowledge and expertise in
reporting that part of the world,” Grade said.

“The
BBC was carrying live reports from Indonesia well before some of its
competitors had even spotted that the story had broken.”

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