Several years ago when I was controller of Radio 4, I commissioned the Reith Lectures from the philosopher and ethicist, Onora O’Neill. She took as her subject the issue of trust and argued that the so-called “revolution in accountability” of the last decade, with its ever increasing micro-performance measures, had singularly failed. This revolution had not reduced mistrust in institutions. Rather, she argued, it had actually reinforced a culture of suspicion and disappointment.
Onora O’Neill’s lectures struck a nerve with a huge number of listeners as well as The Sun which ran a glowing editorial on them – definitely a first for the Reith Lectures!
We have a lot of performance measures at the BBC and I daresay we can look forward to more. Many of them are valuable – they connect us with the attitudes of our audiences for example and give us insight into our weaknesses. But as the events of the summer demonstrated with horrible clarity, you need a lot more than performance measures to build trust between your organisation and the people who use your services.
The shaming revelation that some of our competitions had been codded and some of our winners didn’t actually exist was a shock to many inside and outside the BBC. A few tried to shrug it off. Others took comfort from the fact that no-one at the BBC made a bean from these incidents - unlike some of our commercial competitors whose faked competitions made millions. But the vast majority of BBC people know that if you take the public for a ride – whatever your motivation - you will not be readily forgiven. It’s fundamentally disrespectful to the audience which pays for you.
So 2008 will be an important year for rebuilding a battered trust with our audiences. Some of it will include performance measures: everyone involved with content must do the Safeguarding Trust course for example and the BBC Trust will be counting to make sure they do. Parts of the press have depicted this training as a kind of Maoist re-education camp where we learn to tell the truth. I’ve done the course and they’re wrong: it’s a rigorous seminar about artifice and truth in production techniques with lots of discussion and debate. And yes, there are some right and wrong answers and yes, people understand and accept them.
But training is only part of what we must do next year. The real challenge in 2008 is the same as it is every year. It’s about good old fashioned integrity. It’s about living up to our values on a daily basis and being confident enough to own up when we fall short. In News, that means accuracy, impartiality, independence, fairness and open mindedness remain at an absolute premium.
Recently I was talking to a group of very bright and thoughtful senior journalists at Radio 5Live. One of them said that in the current climate, people are now fearful about making mistakes. Might we be in danger of killing creativity?
I don’t think so. I want people to be imaginative and take calculated creative risks and there’s absolutely no sign of this waning in the organisation. But I think that we should be alarmed about getting things wrong and making mistakes for a very simple reason: people in overwhelming numbers believe what we tell them. We must never take that lightly. It’s a huge responsibility and privilege. Indeed, it’s what trust in BBC News is all about.
As 2008 begins, we shall endeavour to continue to earn that trust. And I know that you will keep us on our toes as we do it.