Grade unveils his blueprint for BBC news

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, giving the inaugral 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.
He also resisted any pressure for the Corporation to dumb down saying it remains committed to “journalism of high endeavour”.
 
Here is an abridged version of Michael Grade’s Cudlipp lecture:
 
“Twelve months ago, the BBC endured one of the gravest crises in its history.
Lord Hutton reported. The BBC chairman, Gavyn Davies, resigned. The next day the DG, Greg Dyke, also went.
This crisis originated in a failure in the BBC’s journalism. In a
way, it’s a measure of the weight and significance attached to BBC
journalism that a single mistake, in a single report, broadcast very
early one morning, should be able to precipitate such a cataclysm.
 
In the wake of Hutton, the BBC set up the Neil committee. Ron Neil
is a former editor of BBC News and Current Affairs, with a formidable
record of achievement as a journalist. Since the Neil report was made
public six months ago, BBC management has begun a major programme of
change. Two areas in particular have received close attention. The
first is journalist training.
The Neil report had many recommendations to make in this area. The
most eye-catching was the recommendation to set up a BBC College of
Journalism. The central principle will be that all BBC journalists will
be guaranteed continued professional training every year throughout
their career – and that includes senior editors.
 
This is a recognition that editors, who play a crucial role in the
highly decentralised BBC system, have not always received the support
they need in learning the professional skills needed to handle
difficult and sensitive editorial issues. These include ensuring that
star presenters embody the BBC’s core values just as much as junior
researchers.
The BBC College of Journalism won’t mean a new building built at
licence payers’ expense on some leafy campus. There will be many
different ways of delivering the new training – including distance
learning.
 
The BBC already has a new online interactive training programme on
editorial policy. It takes users through a series of challenging
editorial dilemmas based on real examples from BBC output. The
programme is engaging, thought-provoking and enlightening. There’s also
a series of workshops to tease out the full implications of Hutton and
Neil. They cover things like handling exclusives and the right way to
use sources. So the BBC is making headway in ensuring its journalists
are properly and professionally trained – and this training is
refreshed throughout their careers.
 
The second area highlighted in the Neil Report where progress is
being made is accountability. The complaints handling system across the
BBC has been changed to make it speedier, fairer and more accountable.
You may also have seen Ray Snoddy’s NewsWatch programme on News 24.
This is the first time the BBC has ever had a feedback programme solely
dedicated to news and current affairs output. There’s now also a
valuable Notes and Corrections section of the NewsWatch website. So if
the BBC gets things wrong, there’s now a place where corrections can
rapidly be posted.
 
These are positive changes. But 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’re the BBC, we
don’t get things wrong, so you must be mistaken.”
 
But of course from time to time the BBC does get things wrong. The
BBC is the product of human endeavour with all the fallibilities that
that implies. The BBC has to acknowledge this. It has to turn itself
into and 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.”
 
Everyone at the top of the BBC signs up to that principle. But the
BBC has a highly decentralised editorial structure and it has taken
time to get this declared openness to external challenge properly into
the editorial bloodstream. Three months ago, a BBC correspondent in the
Middle East – a good correspondent with a strong record – made an
inappropriately personal remark about the death of Yasser Arafat in an
edition of From Our Own Correspondent.
 
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. And knowing that would raise
eyebrows, she went on Radio 4’s Feedback programme to explain herself.
It was time, she said, for BBC News to have an adult relationship with
its audience.
 
That was in October. In December BBC World was the victim of a
spectacular – if rather cruel – hoax. As a result, some BBC news
outlets broadcast an inaccurate story about compensation for the
victims of the Bhopal Disaster. This time the response was different.
Two things happened.
 
The first was an unambiguous correction –
transmitted as soon as the hoax was revealed. The second was that an
immediate high-level investigation was launched – to ensure that the
BBC learns from the mistake.
 
This was not, after all, just a matter of a BBC journalist being taken
in by a cleverly-designed fake website – although that was part of the
problem. It was also a case of BBC journalists fixing an interview
apparently without asking some basic questions, such as what the
interviewee might say, and then checking it out in advance.
But, given that the hoax had worked, the BBC response was the right
one: speedy, frank, open, based on the acknowledgement that mistakes do
happen and that the important thing is to hold your hand up and then
ensure that the right lessons are learned.
 
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.
 
It’s encouraging to note that in survey after survey – most
recently a poll in last week’s UK Press Gazette – the BBC remains
Britain’s most trusted source of news. The quality that underpins trust
in BBC journalism is impartiality.
 
It’s fashionable in some quarters to be a bit patronising about
the idea of impartiality. It’s a fantasy. It can’t be achieved. Why
try? Bias is inevitable. Why not be honest about our biases and leave
it to the market to decide which set of avowedly partisan news
bulletins should win the battle for audiences? I passionately and
fundamentally disagree. Of course individuals have opinions. But it is
possible to neutralise individual bias through a self-critical and
dispassionately professional approach. And it is possible to achieve a
journalism that is fair, open-minded and shows a respect for truth.
 
Some would say that to search for truth is naïve. There is no
truth, only competing perspectives. But here too, I disagree. It is
possible to search for an objective truth on which reasonable people
can agree – indeed that search is central to the practice of serious
journalism.
Let others abandon that search if they wish. It is not the road the BBC
will travel.
 
The BBC must not take its agenda from others. That means taking
great care not to accept uncritically the way issues are framed by
parts of the media that are avowedly partisan. But it also means not
slipping into the knee-jerk cynicism that dismisses every statement
from every politician as, by definition, a lie.
 
Scepticism is a necessary and vital part of the journalist’s toolkit.
But when scepticism becomes cynicism it can close off thought and block
the search for truth. The BBC must have the strength, the confidence,
the professionalism, the critical self-awareness, the openness to
challenge, and the independence to be genuinely impartial.
 
As Governors we take a particular interest in this aspect of the
BBC’s news services. Overall perceptions of impartiality are tracked
through independent research for us throughout the year. In addition,
every six months or so the Governors focus on some salient issue in the
news and commission a hard look at whether or not the BBC is living up
to its billing. The latest area under the microscope is the highly
contentious one of coverage of the European Union.
 
In the recent past, these inquiries have been managed in-house.
But that’s clearly problematical – the management judging its own
performance. So this time we went outside the management chain,
commissioned an independent consultant who called in independent
experts. As part of the study, an independent panel, chaired by the
unimpeachably impartial former Cabinet Secretary, Lord Wilson, has
spent the last couple of months doing an intensive review of BBC news
coverage of the EU. Their report – with recommendations – will come to
the Governors in the next few days.
We haven’t yet had a chance to discuss this report, so it would be
wrong for me to pre-empt our decisions. But I can say this: we will
publish the report in full – and we will make sure that its
recommendations are given serious consideration by management.
 
The trust that is built by delivering impartial news is central to
the BBC continuing to perform one of its key public purposes – some
would say its most important public purpose – supporting informed
citizenship. The BBC mission here is becoming increasingly important as
the market for news and information changes, and the pressures mount to
abandon serious and thoughtful news coverage. As with every other genre
in the digital universe, news providers are beset by increased
competition, declining audiences and fragmenting revenues.
 
One result is that serious news values are coming under increasing
strain. The BBC may indeed have unwittingly contributed to this by the
emphasis on audience accessibility in news in recent years. 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.
 
But of course it’s not a case of one or the other: of serious
journalism or serious ratings. It is a counsel of despair to believe
that serious journalism is incapable of being popular journalism. Hugh
Cudlipp would have characterised it as a terrible failure of editorial
nerve. In his memoirs Cudlipp spelt out his philosophy: “What
newspapers were about, to me,” he wrote, “was controversy. Stimulating
thought. Destroying the taboos. Taking on complicated subjects like
economics, national health and production, and explaining them in
language all could understand.
 
“The paper worthwhile to me was an Open University, and this meant
presenting the news in a sensational manner in the new days of mass
readership and democratic responsibility.” Well, you might quibble with
the odd word such as “sensational” but this is not a bad mission
statement for a public service news provider: Stimulating
thought;explaining complicated subjects in language all can understand;
underpinning democratic responsibility.
 
But it’s a really hard trick to pull off. One of the key
challenges for BBC journalists is how to engage the audience in stories
that matter. One of the stated aspirations of BBC News is “making the
important interesting”. It’s a really good motto. It should be carved
in letters of gold above the entrance to every BBC newsroom: “Make the
important interesting.” Easy to say, mind you. Hard to deliver.
 
It takes high levels of creativity and craft skills. It takes
innovative formats, strong story-telling, powerful narratives, incisive
judgment, developed specialisms, unforgettable pictures and
laser-precision writing. It takes the best journalists and the best
production talent there is. It takes serious and sustained investment
in specialist journalists and a proper network of foreign bureaux.
 
The BBC has those journalists, and it has that production talent,
it has that investment, and it has an unmatched portfolio of outlets
across radio, television and the internet to showcase the results.
On Boxing Day it was all put to the test. The Indonesian
earthquake and the tsunami that followed posed almost impossible
logistical challenges. 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. The BBC was carrying live reports
from Indonesia well before some of its competitors had even spotted
that the story had broken.
 
It was Rachel Harvey, the BBC’s correspondent in Jakarta, who
delivered those live reports. She knows, and knows well, the area where
the earthquake struck. That local knowledge gave her despatches an
unmatched edge and authority.
But the BBC had many more people in Asia on Boxing Day ready to respond
– most of them already living and working in the region – in Delhi,
Jakarta, Bangkok and Colombo. That’s what you can do when you marry
secure funding to a commitment to cover world news in breadth as well
as depth.
 
It means you can invest in a network of more than 40 properly
staffed foreign bureaux – not just in the major news hubs of
Washington, Brussels and Moscow, but right round the globe. And because
of the BBC’s secure funding it doesn’t face the dilemma that Cudlipp’s
Mirror faced when Rupert Murdoch arrived and triggered a competitive
war that changed the face of British tabloid journalism.
 
The competition is heating up in broadcast news too. 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.
Mark Thompson, the Director-General, has recently spoken of
audiences wanting the BBC to raise its game, looking to the BBC to
uphold and build on what the DG called the “commanding reputations” of
broadcasting.
And he made clear that nowhere was this so important as in news and
current affairs, the cornerstone of the BBC. Tessa Jowell, the
Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, said the other day
that a key part of the prescription for the BBC which she will be
unveiling in her forthcoming Green Paper on charter review would be: “A
BBC even more capable of achieving high benchmarks, especially in news,
that the rest of the industry has to live up to.”
 
Mark Thompson and Tessa Jowell are right. The ambition for BBC
journalism must be to scale the commanding heights. That means an
agenda driven by significance not sensation; by scepticism not
cynicism. It means a passion for accuracy of fact, and precision of
language; a thirst for knowledge and nuance; a commitment to continue
investing in difficult and challenging journalism; and an understanding
that properly reflecting the complexity of the world back to Britain is
as important as properly covering domestic event.
 
It means a journalism of high endeavour. A distinctive
journalism, built on trust, impartiality and independence. A journalism
that never patronises or talks down or underestimates its audience.
A journalism founded on a serious agenda delivered in an engaging way –
a journalism, in short, that really does “make the important
interesting”. A journalism, too, that is not afraid to take considered
risk.
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