BBC director general Lord Tony Hall made an impassioned speech in defence of a free press as he delivered the inaugural Satchwell Lecture organised by the Society of Editors last night.
“In Britain, we have one of the strongest media ecologies in the world – based on a fearless newspaper industry and a vibrant broadcast sector,” he told the audience at Stationers’ Hall in London.
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“And freedom of expression has to be the starting point for everything we do.
“As a journalist, I’m always going to defend our right to tell our audiences the truth about the world around them, at least to the best of our ability to discover it.”
The annual Satchwell Lecture is named after former Society of Editors executive director Bob Satchwell, who was forced to retire from his duties in March last year after suffering a life-changing stroke.
Daily Mail managing editor Charles Garside paid tribute to Satchwell, who headed up the society for 18 years, and fixed his photo to the front of the lectern. Lord Hall praised Satchwell as a “fearless defender of free speech and the public’s right to know”.
In a wide-ranging 30-minute speech, Lord Hall also:
- Pledged to expand the work of fact-checking services at the BBC
- Criticised social media’s lack of “regulatory oversight”
- Warned of a “legal limbo” for media since Sir Cliff privacy ruling
- Called on journalists to tackle claims they peddle “fake news”.
Lord Hall said the BBC’s Charter – which sets out its objectives – now requires it to “champion freedom of expression” for the first time in its 96-year history – a commitment he added will be written into its new editorial guidelines set to be published in the New Year.
“It has always been implicit, but we’re making that commitment explicit for the first time,” he said. “And the greater the threat to freedom of expression, the greater will be our determination to uphold it.”
Mentioning the “F-word” – “fake news” – Lord Hall called on journalists to do everything they can “to combat the suggestion that we peddle fake news”, including double-checking sources.
He said: “Every publisher and every journalist has made mistakes but, in an age when any mistake is portrayed as evidence of an intention to mislead, we must re-double our efforts to get it right first time – and be open and generous about it if we get things wrong.”
The head of the BBC said the “fake news” tag had “given street cred to mass disbelief”, adding: “That doesn’t just threaten journalism everywhere, it threatens people everywhere.
“For democratic government to be legitimate it needs not just the consent of the people, but their informed consent. We cannot allow the fake to drive out the fair. I believe the public – and our democracy – are best served by diverse and independent journalism.
“An electorate that cannot rely on a range of free media is an electorate effectively disenfranchised.
“So we all have a duty to instill public confidence in professional journalism. We must hold our collective nerve and keep doing what’s right. We must all – national and local, broadcasters and newspapers – re-commit ourselves to discovering and telling the truth as far as we can.”
Lord Hall also echoed calls for journalists to refrain from using the phrase “fake news” about “any serious journalistic endeavour”.
“The ‘fake news’ label is too dangerous for us to bandy about unthinkingly,” he said. “An honest mistake – honestly admitted to – and corrected – is not the same as fake news.”
Speaking to the increasing polarisation of politics since the Brexit vote, Lord Hall said people were becoming loyal to particular – “sometimes quite niche” – news services.
“While that makes it challenging for us, impartiality is one of our most precious assets,” he said. “At its most basic, it means BBC journalism is accurate, fair and based on the best evidence we can find. For us, impartiality is critical to trust. And it’s not easy to achieve.”
But Lord Hall said the BBC “should not be in the business of one-sided arguments”.
“Our impartiality does not mean that we strike some sort of false balance, but that we reflect all contributions to a debate and give each of them their due weight,” he said.
“So no equivalence between the climate change sceptic and the overwhelming consensus of scientific opinion, but no exclusion of viewpoints because they’re generally felt to be beyond the pale.
“We won’t give in to pressure to silence dissenting voices – nor allow those voices to be seen as mainstream.”
He added: “Our standing with the public remains high. But to maintain that trust we must be recognised not just as accurate, but as rigorously independent and genuinely impartial. And that view should be held across the majority of people in the country.”
He said the BBC wouldn’t just talk about the challenges presented by “fake news”, but this year “take them on directly”, saying: “We’re going to fight – publicly and globally – for news that people can trust and rely on.”
As part of this endeavour, he said the BBC would extend the work of its dedicated fact-checking Reality Check teams, both on air and online.
He said the appointment of Kamal Ahmed as BBC editorial director “signals a big shift in how we’ll approach not just reporting what happens, but reporting on why it is happening – using data, evidence and context to support our audiences’ understanding”.
He added: “We want to explain the world around us, not simply report on it – and help set the record straight when people and institutions play fast and loose with the evidence.”
In fact, he said, this was part of a “renewed focus on the integrity of news and information” across the BBC’s output.
“I don’t believe you enlighten people by allotting equal airtime to well-evidenced argument on the one hand, and to unsubstantiated assertion on the other,” he said.
“An astronaut who has gazed down on the curvature of our Earth from outer space needs to be taken more seriously than some guy with a blog who still maintains that it’s flat.
“There are objective facts, and then there are theories, some but not all of which may turn out to have credibility.”
He added: “I want a BBC that reveals the whole landscape. A landscape that reveals causes as well as effects. Where audiences discover, not just ‘what’, but ‘why’. And not just ‘why’, but why it matters… the BBC as the place you go to for the background, the context, the explanation.”
Lord Hall said he was a “profound believer” in specialism within journalism – “experts in their field who can give you a first draft of history” – and said they were crucial to maintaining the BBC’s reputation in broadcast news.
‘Never had so much news’
He said much of the competitive pressure on BBC journalism came from social media, rather than rival newsgatherers – showing the BBC is as affected by digital disruption from the likes of Facebook and Google as the printed press has been.
“Ask young people today – not just in their teens but in their twenties too – about their most important source of news and they’re most likely to say it’s social media,” he said.
“There are a multitude of attractive online providers offering an infinite quantity of material that’s cheap or free to produce, that appears to be universal, that feels somehow democratic because it’s free of editorial direction and that positively demands interaction and seems to involve its users directly in a wider world. Of course, it’s appealing.
“We’ve never had so much news available so immediately from all parts of the world. It’s an astonishing advance in our ability to bring information to everyone in the palm of their hands. And it’s to be celebrated,” he said.
“But social media and user-generated news sites have no regulatory oversight, no commitment to be truthful, or fair – far less to be impartial. If you’re misled you have no redress.
“News you learn from social media may be appealing, amusing, shocking, appalling – but it may not be true. You’ll rarely see what’s happening off camera. There’s no context. There’s no interrogation. There’s no sure test of authenticity.
“I think audiences are learning fast. They increasingly know the difference between different news brands and they’re becoming increasingly discerning about the brands they follow. But we can all do a lot more to help them.
“We all know that without context, without challenge, the world as we see it risks being no more than a collection of anecdotes, a photo album of phenomena. Our role must be to deliver the facts, the images, and the understanding that makes sense of them.
“That’s what the BBC is there to do: to paint a bigger picture that illuminates events. To explore the ‘why’, as well as the ‘what’.
“Of course, for us to do that for the Youtube generation means using the platforms and techniques that, hour by hour, are now a part of our daily lives. But we need to bring them something more: not just experience, but insight.”
Evolving privacy laws
Lord Hall also warned that in recent years the law “has been moving towards protecting privacy rights” and that broadcasters and the press alike were in a “legal limbo” following the BBC’s defeat in a High Court privacy case against Sir Cliff Richard.
The judge in the case ruled that the BBC had breached the septuagenarian singer’s privacy by revealing him as under police investigation over a historical sex assault allegation – later dropped without charge.
The BBC decided against appealing the ruling over its complexity and has instead called on the Government to review the law around the media’s right to report on police suspects.
“If we report police raids and identify the suspect in advance of any arrest or charge, we may be found in breach of the evolving laws of privacy,” said Lord Hall.
“I can see no reason to believe that Parliament ever intended that, but if it did it should say so.
“So now we need Government and Parliament to clarify the law and tell the public clearly what they are and what they are not allowed to be told when there is a conflict between freedom of speech and individual privacy.”
Asked by Press Gazette for an update on the BBC’s call for a review, Lord Hall said he had sent out invitations calling on “like-minded people”, both journalists and politicians, to attend a seminar to be held in the next month or two “to try and work out how we can suggest a way through this”.
He added: “I’m not letting it go, I really want to motor on this and I think if we can get the right people together to try to work this through I think we can do something really critical.”
Persecution of journalists
Following news of a fourth journalist killed within the European Union since 2017 this week, and a Washington Post contributor currently missing feared dead in Turkey, Lord Hall said the threat of “political interference” looms larger for journalists worldwide than that posed by fake news.
“In country after country, repression of the media seems to have become a new norm. The persecution and imprisonment of journalists for simply doing their job is all too commonplace,” he said.
He said the BBC was also renewing its UN-backed call to end the harassment of staff in its Persian service, based in London, and their families in Iran. It has been going on for a year, he added, and is “getting worse”.