Why honesty in TV must come from the top down

The BBC has decided to reschool all its programme makers in ‘Safeguarding Trust”. And do it by the end of next March.

It’s a ambitious task but for a public service broadcaster, an essential one. Trust is broadcasting’s currency. Polls show people trust broadcasting far more than any other medium.

Some 16,500 BBC staff will go through challenging online learning and exercises, supplemented by compulsory face-to-face workshops. It’ll mean more than 130 people a day in classrooms across the UK and abroad.

But what is there to teach? You either get honesty – the root of trust – or you don’t. And according to some broadcasting executives at the outer end of their careers, honesty is exactly what the new generation doesn’t get. The older generation, of course, had nothing to do with fashioning the wonky moral compasses attached to young producers’ clipboards.

Trust is about three things; leadership, leadership and leadership.

BF Skinner’s behaviourist learning theories are out of fashion now, but he was spot on about one thing. The way to teach, create and maintain a culture – in this case, one of trust – is to live it yourself.

Young broadcast journalists will learn not to reverse the order of shots to increase impact, not to say a shot shows a dying man when it doesn’t, not to edit a speech to give the opposite impression of the original. But only if senior producers, editors, commissioners and controllers actively disallow it and show day in, day out, that it’s ‘not the way we do things here. Not ever.’

Teaching young broadcasters how to put honesty before impact, trust before budget, accountability before an award, is pointless if their bosses call these judgements the other way when the heat’s on.

All broadcast journalism is artifice – even the most strait-laced factual or current affairs programmes. The audience knows that it’s life with the dull bits edited out, the pointed questions sharpened. But there’s a line – and while audiences might not be able to tell you where it is beforehand, when it’s crossed and artifice becomes faking, they feel betrayed. Rightly so.

Few journalists and broadcasters who cross the line do so because they’re morally deficient. They do it because they can. Because their journalistic culture is flawed.

The Jayson Blair scandal – when the New York Times reporter was forced to resign after he was caught plagiarising and making up stories – showed that while he’d been malevolently inventive, few of his mendacious practices were much more than extreme interpretations of a newsroom culture that had been drifting that way for years. Without senior editors pulling it back.

In the isolation of the edit suite or the pressured atmosphere of the newsroom, corners can get cut, standards set aside to get an (award-winning) end product, on deadline and on budget. If the leadership allows it.

For leaders and young producers alike, there are plenty of don’ts but few abstract rules to learn. A culture of honesty is vital. So is an understanding of context. What’s an acceptable artifice in historical documentary might be totally unacceptable in a contemporary political profile.

Alongside culture and context are two other ‘Big Cs’of trust –consistency and contingency. Consistency means asking: ‘am I doing exactly what I told the audience I would do?”. Contingency means asking: ‘how do I stay honest if this doesn’t go to plan?”

And there’s this touchstone question. ‘If the audience (my mother/my best friend) knew I’d done this, would they still trust me?’

Honest answers only, please.

Kevin Marsh is editor of the BBC College of Journalism and a former editor of the Radio 4 Today programme

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