The future of news?
As I mentioned earlier, I recently gave a speech - at the new Reuters journalism institute at Oxford University - on some of the themes which are driving our strategy for the future of BBC TV News; including the growing importance of user interaction, how new technology is challenging the traditional concept of BBC impartiality, and how broadcasters will have to adapt to regain lost audiences.
You can read the speech below. I'd be very interested to know what you think of my arguments.
If you scratch some broadcast journalists of my generation you'll discover, barely skin deep, that the reason some of them went into broadcasting was to tell the audience what to think. I have to confess that was part of my motivation - the sense of having the opportunity to produce journalism that would really change people's understanding of the world. And I suspect it's a motivation that would be recognised by my former editor and mentor - Tim Gardam - the chair of the steering committee for this prestigious new institute.
Now I'm in a job - as head of the BBC's TV News services - where the power to influence what millions think may seem considerable. But I have to report my disappointment - though it's a disappointment I thoroughly welcome. Because any power there may once have been to tell people what to think has evaporated. Convulsions in technologies and fragmentation in audience attitudes mean that the power to instruct the public is seeping through the broadcasters' fingers...
These revolutions raise profound questions for public service news provision and for society more widely: Is a universal news service now possible in a fragmented and segregated society? I will argue that it is still worthwhile, indeed essential, to make the effort to adapt our news to maintain universality. But we will need to look again at what we mean by impartiality and transform editorially to re-find our lost audiences.
But to be able to do that we will need much greater understanding from both press and academic commentators on media policy. Much of the opinion-former debate about public service broadcasting is founded on the outdated belief that the purpose of public service journalism is to provide the kind of patronising instruction that my early career was mistakenly based on. Regulators, politicians and lobby groups are often united in just one thing - their desire to tell the public what to think and their determination to make the BBC and other public service broadcasters deliver their messages accordingly. But these interest groups, and those of us who once thought we could shape the views of our audience, are being rapidly out-flanked and indeed ignored by the audiences those groups control.
In this lecture I hope to demonstrate the depth and spread of this anti-elitist revolution but I will show there is still space for journalism that seeks to inform all, even-handedly. But to achieve this new purpose we need to leave behind the desire some broadcasters previously held - to tell the public what to think. Instead we should seize a new purpose - giving the public the information and greater space to think through democratic debate and interaction.
And I will argue that to respond adequately to these audience challenges there must be a far greater range of approaches and agendas in our journalism. BBC TV News will need to adapt massively. "BBC News" may need to become "BBC Newses".
It was once all so easy. We gave the audience few options. As one of the producers on Newsnight in the early 1980s, we could then assume that many in our audience would have consumed little news that day - and that they'd rely on us for their account of the world. And as one of the producers on Panorama, we had the comfort of knowing that, in a neat conspiracy, ITV would schedule World in Action against us. It wasn't that we gave the audience no options to avoid current affairs, but we tried to give them as few as possible. As for taking the views of the audience into account, that was almost never thought of. The "duty log" - the overnight list of phone calls from the audience - was regarded as being a repository of entertainingly eccentric commentary. Letters from viewers would, I exaggerate only slightly, lie in yellowing piles on the desks of producers weeks after the transmission of an item that was being complained about. Only the most assiduous, or the most argumentative, would take the trouble to reply. It was a fairly cosy world.
And what of the journalism that we delivered? How did we interpret the BBC's key value - impartiality? Well, on arrival we were soon taught how to handle that. In an era of neatly polarised Left/Right views - both domestically and internationally - it was easy to make sure that you delivered impartiality - simply by balancing interviews. A Tory minister balanced by a Labour spokesman. An industrialist with a union leader. An American foreign affairs expert with a CND activist.
And 25 years ago we used to measure impartiality to ensure we were delivering. During election campaigns one producer had the unenviable job of running the stop watches on every political discussion. He'd have three stop watches (because at election times the Liberals or Social Democrats would be allowed on, to make up the panel). The watches would be stopped and started as each speaker began and ended. Towards the end of a discussion he'd issue instructions through the presenter's ear-piece. "Labour needs another 45 seconds". The presenter would seek to give the spokesman that time. Uninterrupted. After each interview the minutage would be compiled into magnificent tables that would show incontrovertibly if we were, or weren't, being impartial. There was healthy internal editorial debate, but little examination of content and agendas from the audience's perspective. And, apart from the relatively confined programme areas of Question Time and radio phone-ins, there was little audience involvement in our journalism.
When did that all change? In my own career the turning point, I can now see in retrospect, came when I was editor of Panorama. In 1999 we were one of the first programmes to introduce a programme web site and an email address. The first time we gave out the Panorama email at the end of a programme, a small group of us sat in the BBC online newsroom waiting nervously to see whether the audience would respond to our programme. After 5 minutes, no emails. After 10 minutes no emails. After 15 minutes we gathered our coats and started to pack up. Then suddenly "ping". (Long ago, in 1999, when emails arrived they did go "ping") A trickle of emails started, then dozens. They'd taken 15 minutes because the audience was taking the trouble to marshall their thoughts. Their responses were cogent, heartfelt and in many cases highly combative. They didn't like the reporters' tone or they didn't like the way a certain argument had been short-changed. In short, interactivity was born and with it a level of demand for response from broadcasters that is getting ever more intense.
And that involvement is ballooning at an extraordinary pace. On an average day BBC News gets 10,000 emails. On a busy day that can go up to 20,000. On 7 July 2005 we received 300 images of the aftermath of the London bombings. Just a few months later when the Buncefield oil refinery fire happened, we received over 15,000 images. Much media commentary has focussed on these audience contributions to our journalism - so called User Generated Content. But I believe that wider audience interaction, technology and changing audience perspectives and consumption are changing broadcast journalism in far more interesting and profound ways than simply providing as an extra information source.
It is a whole range of other responses from audiences - transmitted instantly through new technology - that is revolutionising our journalism. Let me break down the key changes: We now have far better information about who is or isn't watching, what they're watching or reading, what they appreciate or hate, what their views are and what they demand of us. All this information gives us a rich picture of audience response and preference - often in real time. Of course that understanding of, and interaction with, the audience is only one part of the information available to us and only plays a part in the judgments we make. But it's the newest and most rapidly changing aspect of the picture, so I will concentrate on this.
In this analysis I will use figures for BBC services, as I have readiest access to those. However the data for the other main British TV news providers - Sky News and ITV News - is not so different in the picture it paints. In terms of average audience levels for our main terrestrial programmes, the picture is not too unhealthy. Our premier bulletin the Ten O'Clock News - averages 4.6m. That is down somewhat from the audience levels of 6 or 7m ten years ago, but the fall is roughly in line with BBC1's overall audience decline. And of course many more people watch BBC TV News in an average week than the average for an individual bulletin - 32.2 million. This is a big number - the kind any media outfit would desire.
However there is a problem and it's an especially acute one for the BBC, as we have a responsibility to be a universal service. We are increasingly not watched by younger audiences, more socially downmarket groups and minorities of all kinds. And that switch-off from news is deepening rapidly for all news suppliers.
The number of adults watching BBC News on BBC1 and BBC2 for at least three minutes a week has declined from 74% of the audience to 68% in the last five years. And, by the way, watching for just three minutes is the industry standard measure - although three minutes of news doesn't seem very much to me. But the picture for particular population groups is far starker. The proportion of economic group C2 - that's broadly unskilled manual workers - watching has gone down by 8% in that period. And the number in the 16-34s age group watching has dropped by 12% in five years to 36% of the audience. That's a drop of about 2.5m young adults - simply lost to mainstream news watching. Our digital services are picking up some of the slack. The revitalised News 24 is now clearly the most watched news channel in the UK, and our website attracts 4million unique users a day. But those increases do not yet compensate for the falls on BBC1 and BBC2.
For many other media players this drop in penetration amongst sections of the audience might not matter. A commercial player could target more closely the upscale older audiences the BBC easily reaches and serve them effectively. But the BBC takes money from almost every household in the land. Providing news information, on which citizens can base their democratic and personal decisions, is the core purpose of the BBC. Our own projections show that unless we do something, our journalism - local and national, and on all platforms, radio, TV and online - may only reach two thirds of the population in five years time.
But as well as knowing how much people are watching and what type of people are watching, we now have much more detailed information on viewers' responses to individual news stories. It's this change which is fundamentally altering the journalism business. BBC News online has realtime statistics for its most-read stories. On a big news day, a terror alert or a war in Lebanon will get most hits. But on a quiet day a more off-beat story is often at the top. For instance, who would have thought the story about the Sudanese man forced to marry a goat, published in February, would still be attracting enormous traffic in September. (And who could resist the story: "The goat's owner, Mr Alifi, said he surprised the man with his goat and took him to a council of elders. They ordered the man to pay a dowry of 15,000 dinars. 'We have given him the goat and as far as we know they are still together', Mr Alifi said") Or the fascination for the 13ft python which burst after eating a 6ft alligator. (Great headline: "Snake bursts after gobbling 'gator")
And the online audience is often highly interested in stories of entertainers and celebrities. News of Britney Spears' new baby attracted 350,000 readers in one day and the interest in the honeymoon of Tom and Katie Cruise was sustained for days. We're beginning to realise that what people want to read when they are online may be very different from what they want to watch on TV.
For we now also have very rich data on the viewing of our main bulletins at six and 10 o'clock. The BBC has set up a panel of 15,000 viewers, selected to represent the population as a whole, to give their views on each evening's programmes. Amongst the questions they get asked about dramas and documentaries, viewers are also invited to select which individual news stories most stood out and which they'd like to know more about. We use this information in turn to feed the audience's curiosity about news stories. For instance the research told us, many months before politicians started to really embrace green agendas, how passionately the audience wants to understand climate change. Their interest in apparently complicated subjects like council tax and pensions comes through clearly. And, in contrast to the online audience, the current TV news bulletins audience says it is not that interested in celebrity or sensation. We know, because we also ask them what stories they are not interested in. They respond forcefully to this invitation. For example when Tom Cruise was dumped by his Hollywood studio, 80% of respondents claimed that it did not interest them. Similarly when the England squad visited the new Wembley stadium, 78% said they weren't interested.
As some of the stories the online audience loves are ones that the TV News audience says it dislikes, what should a programme editor choose to run? Some would argue that editors should just ignore confusing audience information and use professional judgement to decide what is important or interesting. And of course for the most important stories that's exactly what they do. Few audience surveys or click statistics ever indicate the Northern Ireland peace process or conflict in Sri Lanka are desired by audiences, but we need to cover those stories. But when it comes to judgments about the stories that will make up the wider range of our running orders I believe it is entirely legitimate to reflect audience interests, as well as audience responses to particular treatments and angles. But, having decided to use the information, we still have some very finely balanced decisions to make. Do we throw in a story that might be of particular appeal to a younger member of the audience, whilst running the risk of alienating more traditional viewer?
But beyond the dilemmas highlighted by our greater knowledge of audience interests, we are faced with probably our biggest challenge. Tailored news services, internet TV and radio stations, blogs and other new interactive services now offer various minority segments and interest groups news that cater for highly specialist tastes. Those niche services offer their audiences information that often has the effect of re-enforcing their prejudices. There has always been a desire from parts of the audience to have news information that validates their prior values. Newspapers in the UK have, after all, had pretty clear political and social perspectives. But in the electronic media it is only relatively recently that this type of news, predominantly through the internet, has been widely available. My strong impression is that this part of the online world clubs together in networks to exchange information with like-minded people. The internet is in danger of becoming an enormous exercise in preaching to the converted.
But, in comparison, a broader news service like the BBC's can appear too dispassionate or unengaged and is seen as an affront to more partial perspectives. For pressure groups it can be a target to be influenced, in whatever direction that group tends to lean. And of course we have now given them the ability to answer back. They certainly do. But these increasing shouts of bias against public broadcasters are more a reflection of the distorted information environment the complainants themselves live in. They are so conditioned to their own shared perspective that they are more inclined than before to see impartiality as bias.
I also want to examine an increasing challenge to the BBC's notions of impartiality - the claim that impartiality is a false god that is no longer philosophically sustainable. It's an argument that has been heard before, but has gained new force in the face of threats to global security. The dangers of pure impartiality were argued powerfully to me by a senior Israeli on a recent visit to Jerusalem. Rather than mount the familiar argument, at least to BBC ears, that our coverage of Israel and Palestine was unbalanced, he instead he argued that we should not be attempting to be impartial (or "neutral" as he put it) about the threat from terrorism - which he saw as being essentially one phenomenon whether on the streets of London or Tel Aviv.
He made a case that was forceful - both emotionally and intellectually. How could the BBC, as an upholder of free speech and an embodiment of liberal democracy, be prepared to be neutral in the face of extremists who wished to undermine such principles - and were cynically prepared to exploit the BBC's even-handedness? He argued that you couldn't apply the values of reporting a political institution such as Westminster to the struggle Israel faces - against foes such as Hezbollah and Hamas. His view was that those organisations' disregard for human life means that civilians (whether in apartment blocks near to Hezbollah missile sites or Gaza residents near to Hamas rocket launchers) were deliberately put in harm's way. The resulting images of violence caused by Israeli action were then contrasted, by broadcasters, with relatively light casualties in Israel. Meanwhile, the threat to Israel's future security from Iran is largely an abstract threat that is hard to visualise. Faced with the alleged inherent "unfairness" of these images he suggested that the BBC had to put away what he saw as an ultimately self-destructive obsession with impartiality. And his argument is shared by other parts of the political spectrum. But the very fact that such views are now more widely argued itself provides a stronger justification for impartiality. If more people see the world only through their own prisms then the danger of lack of mutual understanding is even greater. How would that comprehension be aided by removing one of the few global sources of non-aligned information? But to make our news appeal to those of strong beliefs will require a major shift by news providers.
We therefore have some clear trends - a serious decline in viewing in parts of the audience, a distrust in some quarters for the BBC's record in reflecting a wide range of viewpoints and a lack of belief from a minority in the very notion of impartiality. Is it therefore desirable to continue to attempt to deliver a universal news service? And, if it is desirable, how on earth do we attempt to do so?
One way of assessing the case for universality is to examine the alternative - what if there weren't publicly provided universal news services? The current experience of our commercial news competitors is salutary. Sky News, which has a proud tradition of journalistic enterprise and innovation, is undergoing cuts in its journalistic staffing and may have further cuts. And its editorial agenda is shifting in a clearly commercial direction. Influenced by its relationships with fellow Sky channels, its two most recent deployments of its main presenter have been to the Ryder Cup and the Ashes cricket. News 24's most recent major deployments have been to the Saddam Hussein trial and today's visit of the Pope to Turkey. And ITN's costs look like being pared back even further in the next round of contract negotiation - negotiation with a broadcaster that is now 20% owned by its main rival. That will constrain even further the range of stories ITN covers.
Ofcom is currently examining whether there is a need for public intervention to ensure the maintenance of plurality of supply in broadcast news. Although the BBC has a firm position that the licence fee should only be used for BBC services (as there is a clear association and accountability in the public's mind between the licence and the BBC's services), we have an open mind about other means of public financial support to ensure a range of broadcast news services survive. But it is clear that the BBC will remain the cornerstone.
But imagine if Sky, ITN and BBC all disappeared. There would probably be two types of news provision - i) attempts to provide mass news on a low cost base through a narrow range of sensationalist stories produced in a threadbare fashion. And ii) specialist information produced by bloggers and pressure groups to appeal to adherents of particular opinions. The range of information that society would hold in common would be increasingly narrow and more people would only come across views that reinforced rather than challenged their prejudices. There would be an enormous irony that a society where views are increasingly polarised might be significantly less understanding of the views of others and therefore be more intolerant. Technologies that create fragmentation could end up accentuating divergence and even hatred. I believe there are real dangers for society in an information world that is so highly differentiated.
So the BBC's purpose in such an environment becomes clearer – to provide the widest range of information and views to all – so that the bulk of the population sees its own perspective reflected honestly and regularly. We must also provide the opportunity for people to regularly come across alternative information and perspectives that provide a wider viewpoint. We need to provide that information and opinion in forms and styles of sufficient appeal to attract all users. That attraction must be based on delivering to their individual interests and information needs. For the majority of consumers will not seek out news as part of a perceived civic duty. They need to be entertained and engaged.
And it's this need to create news that appeals even more than it has done in the past which leads me to ask for greater understanding and leeway to be given by opinion formers to the ways in which BBC News will need to change. The older "chattering class" view of change in broadcasting invariably takes the view that making information appealing is selling out or "dumbing down". In fact the need to give serious information of broad appeal is one of the most important purposes the BBC has in the digital era – to get information to audiences who might otherwise never come across it. Indeed if we fail to reach this "lost audience" it is likely that they will have few sources of reputable information to provide a rounded view of the world. Surely failing to meet that obligation would lead to a democratic deficit – for a disengaged and disenfranchised part of society. That would be real dumbing down. But to avoid that fate, we will need to adopt creative strategies that stretch our understanding of what news is. And that might mean creating a number of variants of BBC News. Already BBC radio news has a wide variety of flavours – from Newsbeat on Radio 1 through to Today and The World Tonight on radio 4. In TV and in our interactive services we may need to move to "BBC Newses" rather than one BBC News.
To address those who distrust impartiality, and may sometimes find the BBC's tone bland, centrist and somewhat equivocal, we need to assert a more vigorous reporting style and widen still further the range of views we transmit. Our reporting cannot start from any prior position of prejudice, but we can report more vividly. We will continue to allow our most experienced journalists to assert their professional judgments more clearly and generally tell it the way they see it, so that our journalism is loud and fearless. We need to build on the recent revival in the strength of BBC investigative journalism because we know that journalism that challenges those in authority is a requirement from a large part of our audience. And we need to be prepared to hear from those whose views many of our viewers may find abhorrent.
Recently I was involved in a public argument with a Conservative party spokesman after a brave BBC reporter - David Loyn - secured an interview with the Taliban in Afghanistan. The Tory spokesman called the interview obscene. But that comment is emblematic of the desire to limit the range of what the BBC can reflect - a limitation that runs counter to the unfolding trends in society and technology. Of course, anyone who wants to know the Taliban's views can easily read them or watch them on the Internet. For critics of Britain's role in Afghanistan, a decision to exclude from our airwaves the views of the Taliban would rightly be seen as censorship and create deep reservations about the BBC's independence. And, for those who are strong supporters of Britain's forces, hearing the Taliban's bloodthirsty admissions would be unlikely to convert them to support for insurgency. Our experience of audiences is that they are remarkably smart at thinking for themselves. It is often politicians and special interest groups that proceed on the basis that the public needs to be protected from powerful views.
So, the days of middle-of-the-road, balancing left and right, impartiality are dead. Instead I believe we need to consider adopting what I like to think of as a much wider "radical impartiality" - the need to hear the widest range of views - all sides of the story. So we need more Taliban interviews, more BNP interviews - of course put on air with due consideration - and the full range of moderate opinions. All those views need to be treated with the same level of sceptical inquiry and respect. The days are over when the BBC treated left wing or pro-diversity views as "loony" or interviewed anti-Europe or anti-immigration spokesmen insufficiently often. We lost considerable credibility with some of the audience by excluding views that significant parts of our population adhere to. So get used to hearing more views that you dislike on our airwaves. This wider range of opinion is a worthwhile price to pay to maintain a national forum where all can feel they are represented and respected.
A more wide ranging and radical definition of impartiality may help persuade those of strong views who are already engaged with the news to trust us more. But it is unlikely to attract back many of the lost audiences to news - who are often deterred by ceaseless and vexatious political arguments. For younger and less well off audiences we need other technological and editorial strategies. For younger audiences, especially upscale ones, new platforms - such as the internet, continuous news channels like News 24 and BBC World and mobiles and other portable devices, hold out some significant potential.
Most of those platforms allow for on-demand services. On-demand gives audiences the possibility to choose individual stories. The need to cover stories people find attractive in an on-demand world, as well as those that are significant, means we need to broaden our story range and our definition of what constitutes news. And we need to embrace the audiences' ability to answer back. Our top correspondents - such as Nick Robinson - write many times a day on their blogs. Responses from the audience form an important part of Nick's developing judgements and help him to break new stories. All these technological fixes require organisational reform and significant extra resource but they don't necessarily challenge our core journalistic approach. Getting back the "lost audience" does.
What of the many people who do not live in a news bubble, who have an infinite range of alternative media and who pick up on what's happening through chat with their friends and through occasional skimming of magazines? Re-engaging these audiences, predominantly in social groups C2, D and E, will require some significant shifts for BBC News. We can build on services that already appeal to these groups - such as Newsbeat on BBC1, Five Live, and BBC Breakfast TV. But we know what BBC News currently stands for is a barrier for some of this audience.
Recent research we have done shows how different the perspective of this audience is from our traditional approach to news. For instance, they find the professional detachment of BBC presenters and reporters, in the face of human tragedy, baffling. They want our presenters to say things like "your heart goes out to them". Our research concluded "Whilst much of university-based education is focussed on teaching the ability to divorce emotion from intellect and argue "both sides of the toss", to this audience such equivocation would seem not just alien but perverse."
So should we respond to this and other insights into this audience? I can already hear the anti-dumbing down brigade limbering up for the charge. And I'm fully aware of how resistant our current audience is, for instance, to over-emotional reporting. But isn't it vital, for instance, to encourage all audiences to be interested in global news stories? If parts of the audience find our approach off-putting don't we have an obligation to change that approach? Isn't it more important for a public service news service to try hard to get tough stories to audiences that might otherwise turn away from them?
And we are trying to provide that engagement. Ten days ago Fergal Keane delivered some memorable and heartfelt reports from East Africa, where he had spent a week living with and understanding a nomadic group. It was a positive rather than a bleak view of the ability of humans to adapt to climate change. And forthright emotional empathy was at its heart, although Fergal did not describe his own emotions, a distinction I believe we should still maintain.
This audience wants humour and friendliness from our presenters. It looks for a variety of creative treatments that explain the news in a clear but unpatronising fashion - for instance through the use of powerful devices like graphics and explanatory studio screens. But, above all, this audience wants an agenda that speaks to its concerns. I don't believe that is about delivering a purely celebrity based or sensationalist agenda, although entertainment news undoubtedly needs to play a part. They key is for the BBC to throw the biggest journalistic resource in the UK into reporting and revealing stories of universal concern to its own audience. The BBC needs to have a reputation for excellence in its domestic journalism that it rightly has for its foreign, economic, business and political journalism. And that means an unembarrassed embrace of subject areas that have too often been looked down on as too pavement-level or parish-pump. In recent weeks the collapse of the savings group Farepak has been high up our running orders. Less frequent rubbish collections that leave unsanitary garbage in the streets, gun crimes that terrorise black communities, rising unemployment partly caused by new immigrants. These stories are real, not sensationalist and we need to tell them with the same vividness we have brought to our foreign reporting. And they need to be told in the accents and through the personalities of reporters that this audience recognises as being closer to their own interests. The days of the BBC talking down to them and trying to tell this audience what to think are over because they can simply switch off or ignore us if we don't speak to them in their voice.
We need to make these shifts in tone without, as far as possible, offending our traditional audiences who find the style of BBC News appealing. We will take care not to revolutionise those programmes of particular appeal to avid BBC News consumers - for instance the Ten O'Clock News, Newsnight. We will continue to investigate and examine important and complex subjects that commercial broadcasters might shy away from. And we have a particular responsibility to make those subjects engaging and comprehensible to audiences that are not immediately attracted to them. We will focus our efforts at appealing to the lost audiences in parts of the schedule where they will be watching in larger numbers and on new services - such as our interactive red button services - where we can provide content of particular appeal.
And as well as influencing our existing news coverage, on radio TV and online, we are considering whether to launch fresh, more digestible news summaries for audiences who are time pressed and do not want a long bulletin. Such summaries would look and feel different to core BBC News. It would still be part of BBC News, but a different flavour. To solve our audience conundrum we will definitely need these varieties of BBC Newses.
In trying to deliver news more appropriately for these "underserved" audiences, is there a danger of the BBC moving away from public service provision towards a more commercial approach? I believe the focus on audiences I am arguing for is significantly different from the commercial model. Publicly funded news has an obligation to serve all, while commercial news can survive by serving niche interests. A purely commercial broadcast news model (and I'm not suggesting this is true of Sky and ITN) would seek to maximise the largest audience at lowest cost - by producing generic "lowest common denominator" news that would have the widest appeal for the least differentiation in content. That approach would never yield a sufficiently universal audience for a public service provider. And beyond the need to maximise universality, the BBC's own value system drives us to want to provide news information that informs citizens' choices - whether individual or political. However, in order to ensure the widespread delivery of public service news, we need to adopt an approach driven far more by a need to make content appealing to audiences than the "eat your greens" style of traditional public service.
The issues I have been examining are questions the BBC has been asking itself searchingly in the review of future content which we know as Creative Future. And much of our internal debate is focussed on what we need to do to appeal universally. But It is striking to me how rarely, in the newspapers at least, the argument in favour of BBC News appealing to the widest possible audience is heard publicly. That is because, by definition, the audiences that consume our services least are also the least engaged in public debate. And many of those who take part in debate about public service journalism approach it from their own consumption of news, or the desire to influence coverage to their benefit, rather than an audience-based perspective.
I'd like those with an interest in the broader audience to encourage informed discussion of these dilemmas. In the last year the BBC governors, now the BBC Trust, have carried out or will soon carry out, a number of reviews of the impartiality of the BBC's coverage - of the Israeli/Palestinian issue, of Europe and of business. Those reviews have provided useful lessons for BBC News, but it would be of assistance if future editorial reviews could also address the information needs of the audiences who are the most elusive for the BBC. For instance, the reporting of immigration and race issues could help illuminate the dilemmas of producing news that chimes with ethnic minority audiences as well as white working class audiences. The need to provide impartial information as widely as possible ought to motivate any regulator that has the audience's interests, rather than opinion former interests, closest to its heart.
For the question that these extraordinarily rapid changes in audiences, technology and mass media consumption inspires is one that is wider than the BBC or public service broadcasting. The question is whether we are a society in which there can be common ground. Common ground in information, views and a shared understanding of how to interpret the world. That common ground is rapidly shrinking and it is hard ground to stake out. That ground cannot now be based on a single set of views about the world. It has to be a shared set of approaches to understanding the world - a willingness to receive information that challenges assumptions, of hearing views with which one disagrees and the ability to debate and interact to form a variety of views about a diverse society. In that very diversity there needs to be a common purpose - a common approach to understanding.
To adopt that intellectually and editorially challenging purpose is a mission that the BBC and other public service news providers can commit themselves to. It's a tougher and more elusive purpose than the old model of controlling the public's information supply and, in effect, telling them what was important. We must now provide them with all sides of the story and the space to think for themselves. And in order to do so the media class which debates the BBC so vigorously, we should realise that it is everyone's BBC. The BBC's news needs to deliver for all, not just for that media minority.
Speech first delivered 28 Nov 2006 at the Reuters journalism institute at Oxford University.