BBC is force for unity in face of division from fake news and social media, says director-general Lord Hall

It is the BBC’s “duty to help bring the nation together” in the face of disinformation and social media which “feed on fracture and drive polarisation”, outgoing director-general Tony Hall has said.

Lord Hall said that as a public service broadcaster, the BBC “is a force in the opposite direction” to those “designed to exploit division for commercial or political gain” or that would “undermine democracy”.

Lord Hall steps down as head of the corporation next week to be replaced by Tim Davie. In a farewell address to the Edinburgh TV Festival via Zoom today, the life peer spoke of the BBC’s role as a trusted news provider.

“Our goal is to help strengthen society and build bridges by making sure all voices and perspectives are heard,” he said.

“This is about much more than protecting integrity in news, critical as that is… Impartiality is the keystone of broadcast journalism in this country. It’s also about helping to protect our democratic integrity, and fostering unity and cohesion.”

In his speech, Lord Hall acknowledged the pandemic of misinformation that has grown as a threat alongside Covid-19, with fake health news spiking during the crisis as the likes of Facebook struggled to tackle it.

Press Gazette’s Fight the Infodemic campaign aims to stop key social media platforms from promoting misinformation about Covid-19 and instead  favour evidence-based journalism from bona fide outlets.

BBC News was again recently revealed to be the most trusted network news provider in the US, and frequently tops UK polls on trust in media.

“More and more, in the fake news world, truth is a priceless commodity in our societies,” said Lord Hall. “So let’s not forget that, in the BBC, the UK has a remarkable asset: the pre-eminent provider to the world of facts you can trust.”

Lord Hall said the coronavirus crisis had been instructive for public service broadcasters. “For the BBC, I felt the clarity of our mission came into even sharper focus,” he said.

The BBC cut some programmes and reduced to a “core news service” as the impact of the pandemic took hold. It estimates £125m in lost income this financial year as a result of the coronavirus crisis.

Lord Hall said in March 94% of the British people used the BBC, while 87% of 16-34s did so. In some weeks, TV viewing was up nearly 50% year-on-year, Lord Hall said, with  TV news hitting its highest levels since 2003.

He went on: “Public service broadcasters – and the BBC in particular – have always been part of the glue that binds our nations and communities together. But the last few months have emphasized that still further.”

Lord Hall said his goal upon taking over as director-general in November 2012 was to double the corporation’s global audience to 500m by 2022, the BBC’s centenary year. It today reaches 468m people each week.

Under Hall’s leadership, the BBC World Service carried out its biggest expansion since the Second World War with £289m of government funding, broadcasting in 42 languages worldwide.

Lord Hall revealed plans to double the BBC’s global audience to 1bn people by the end of the decade, but said this would require “extra investment from government” which has already been requested.

“No one can do more to carry Britain’s voice and values to the world,” said Lord Hall.

“This could hardly be more important as Britain sets out to forge a new relationship with the world, based on an ambitious vision of ‘Global Britain’. Success will mean drawing on all our considerable international assets. And that means unleashing the full global potential of the BBC.”

He added: “This is a really important moment: history is littered – not just in media, but across many sectors – with companies and organisations that failed to adapt to the digital world. Many great names have fallen. The BBC isn’t one of them. We have made the pivot to a new world. And the BBC is in a great position to continue to thrive in the future.”

In other figures:

  • BBC Sounds now has 3.6 million weekly users
  • BBC iPlayer had 4.8bn requests last year, up 38%
  • BBC Scotland Channel is reaching 1 in 6 people each week
  • Half of the BBC is now based outside the M25

Picture: BBC

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