The role of citizen journalism in modern democracy
This week I gave the keynote speech at the e-Democracy conference. You can read what I said below. I would be interested to know what you think.
When I started my career in broadcasting - at Radio Tees - a commercial local radio station in Middlesbrough - we'd never heard of digital. Nor of the internet. Channel 4 was about to kick off but there was no Sky News; no ITV 2 and certainly no BBC News Channel - formerly known as News 24.
Today, as you will know, on average every person in the UK spends approaching half their waking hours using communication tools like PCs, laptops, mobiles, TVs, radios, iPods and other digital devices.
Last week, 5.5 million people tuned into our US election programme with David Dimbleby. Interestingly, we don't know the precise figure for 1979's programme but we can be pretty certain it was many, many more.
What we are seeing in television is audience fragmentation - the natural impact of greater audience choice in a multi channel age. When people have a lot to choose from, they go off in all sorts of directions. It means that really huge audiences for television news on all channels are a thing of the past.
You can see this quite clearly in the figures. In 2006 - in homes with digital television, news viewing fell by a third. And the numbers watching current affairs fell by half.
Interestingly, soaps don't suffer the same decline.
And all this in the context that analogue television switch off begins this year and ends in 2012. In just four years, we're fully digital.
Today, and increasingly in the future, audiences want the news at the time they want it; on the platform most convenient to them and tailored to the subjects or agenda they find most appealing.
So the biggest challenge for us is about our relationship to the people who matter most - our audiences.
It's about capturing and keeping their hearts and minds. And for audiences who want to join in, that means including them in the process of making the news.
Our journalism is now fully embracing the experiences of our audiences, sharing their stories, using their knowledge and hosting their opinions; we're acting as a conduit between different parts of our audience; and we're being more open and transparent than we have ever been.
And these things are not on the fringes of what we do: they are fundamental.
If you're in any doubt, let me take you on a tour of some recent stories.
I'll start with the London bombings. It was of course a terrible tragedy and a profoundly shocking event. But for Newsgathering, what happened on 7 July three years ago marked a watershed: the point at which the BBC knew that newsgathering had changed forever. In one sense it was just an example of what might be called "accidental journalism".
No one who set off for work that fateful morning had any idea that their mobile phones would capture such dramatic images.
But accidental journalism is nothing new. When Abraham Zapruder took his Bell & Howell movie camera to Dealey Plaza in Dallas, Texas on 22 November 1963 he had no idea he would capture the most iconic example of citizen journalism. He recorded less than 30 seconds of film - the assassination of President Kennedy.
Zapruder had no doubt about the exclusivity and value of his film. It was sold to Life Magazine for $150,000 three days later.
But compare his one film with what happened on 7 July. Within 24 hours, the BBC had received 1,000 stills and videos, 3,000 texts and 20,000 e-mails. What an incredible resource.
Twenty-four hour television was sustained as never before by contributions from the audience; one piece on the Six O'clock News was produced entirely from pieces of user-generated content.
At the BBC, we knew then that we had to change. We would need to review our ability to ingest this kind of material and our editorial policies to take account of these new forms of output.
We were better prepared for the Glasgow airport bombing. Here too, the mobile phone images captured the drama long before conventional news crews could arrive. I was actually at Glasgow and became part of that newsgathering process. Using only my mobile, I was able to get on air immediately.
Later, I actually found one of the men who had wrestled the burning man to the ground and got him on air at once.
It brought home to me as nothing else could how simple digital technology had transformed the process of what we do. When I was a reporter - before mobile phones - live reporting like that would have been much, much harder requiring us to shepherd our interviewee into a phone box to get him on air!
But if these are a kind of accidental journalism - a canny use of domestic technology to get the unexpected story - other kinds of experience sharing are more deliberate.
In September last year, a group of monks and pro-democracy activists led a series of demonstrations against the military rulers in Burma. As the protests took hold, the demonstrations grew in size and thousands of ordinary citizens joined in.
The BBC, like other news organisations, was banned from entering Burma - we couldn't find out what was happening.
But despite a crackdown on the internet and mobile phone networks the BBC was flooded with pictures, video, texts and e-mails from Burmese citizens who told us what was really happening on the ground.
This was citizen newsgathering - simultaneously transcending boundaries and confronting authority.
One contributor in Rangoon told us: "When monks and people reached the mid-level platform of the Shwedagon Pagoda around 12:20 PM, they closed the doors behind and riot police started to chase them and beat them up. Then about 200 were hauled off onto the trucks and driven away. About 80 monks were taken away."
As Burma demonstrated - and I found out for myself in Glasgow, one of the most important tools for the citizen newsgatherer is the mobile phone. Mobiles present a lightning-fast and convenient way for communities and audiences to engage with news organisations.
That was demonstrated in another country from which the BBC reporters are banned: Zimbabwe. On the day of the recent elections there, the BBC asked voters to text in and tell us their experiences at the polling booths. Those texts gave us a really broad diversity of experiences from right across the country.
The situation at the booths appeared to be calmer than expected; but what emerged from many was the high number of people being turned away when they turned up to vote because their names were missing. This again gave us a rich and first-hand addition to our conventional journalism.
In some ways, the most successful combination of conventional and citizen newsgathering was the coverage of the floods that swept across the UK last year. This coverage won an award for innovation at the Royal Television Society. It was truly greater than the sum of its parts. It provided our audiences with crucial public information when they really needed it.
It's no surprise then that the BBC has gone from passively accepting user-generated content to positively soliciting it. It's not just a "nice to have" - it can really enrich our journalism and provide our audiences with a wider diversity of voices than we could otherwise deliver.
As well as voices we might not otherwise hear from, there are stories about which we would never have known.
A new strand on Wales Today - "Your Story" - features stories contributed solely by individual viewers and followed up by the programme.
While World Have Your Say is one of a number of programmes which tries to encourage a global conversation based around the programme's blogs and e-mails.
We are just launching a video Have Your Say where audience members can contribute their opinions by video some of which will undoubtedly make the conventional News bulletins if they are strong enough.
For many of our audiences, this has opened their eyes to something very simple: that their lives can be newsworthy - that news organisations don't have a monopoly on what stories are covered. Indeed, that news organisations have an appetite for stories they simply couldn't get to themselves and they value information and eye witness accounts from the public - as they always have done.
In May this year, an e-mail arrived from a BBC viewer - a worker at Heathrow - that claimed that foreign workers employed airside at UK airports did not have to undergo full mandatory criminal records checks. The story turned in to an exclusive lead for Newsnight, was followed up by several papers, led to questions in the House of Lords and a change in government policy.
It was a more proactive request for contributions that led to a lead story on the 10 O'clock News, after the outgoing head of the army had voiced concern about conditions in armed forces housing. Journalists were unable to film on MoD premises. So the programme used the BBC website and sites that soldiers use - and offered families affected an open platform to tell their own story. The material sent in exposed the squalid state of much of the soldiers' accommodation.
We were then able to show the pictures we received to the Army - and they had to respond. Again, user-generated content became the core of the story.
Technology is allowing us to generate stories we wouldn't otherwise get - and develop them in ways that otherwise wouldn't be possible.
So much for stories. But what about opinions? Of course, for many years members of the public have been able to share their opinions through the media. Phone-in shows have been a staple format on talk radio for decades.
Now, with blogs in particular - but also podcasts and videoblogs - the ability of the public to express opinion in public has exploded - especially in the USA - and they no longer need to be "hosted" by broadcaster.
This has had a number of effects on traditional media.
The appetite for opinion is clearly there - but it has put pressure on the traditional framework of impartiality and objectivity for organisations like the BBC. The quantity of views, and the means by which they are expressed, has grown significantly. So too have the benefits of being seen to embrace and support public discussion.
The challenge for news organisations is in learning how to integrate the opinions of their readers, listeners and viewers in new ways.
And we're still learning. Some commentators have said that blogs have undermined the value of the columnist or op-ed writer, because there is excellent commentary available for free on the web.
But I feel the opposite is true at the BBC. The blogs of senior BBC correspondents are drawing huge numbers of people into sharing the expertise of our specialist editors and engaging in debate with each other.
Listen to some of these figures for October - this past month. Nick Robinson, our political editor, got one and a half million page views for his blog. Justin Webb, in Washington, got two and a half million.
And Robert Peston, our business editor? In one month...just under eight million page views.
And, of course, people aren't just viewing - they're blogging. Adding to the debate, posting their opinions, challenging our coverage, suggesting new avenues of approach.
But it's worth looking at the numbers here -
Take Robert Peston's blog on who benefits from the cut in interest rates. On the day of publication, it had 182,000 page views. And 253 comments.
This highlights the difference in the audiences between those who are happy to read what others have to say and those self selecting minority who want to join in the debate themselves, knowing that the environment can be robust and that people might disagree with what they have to say.
These numbers are also a useful warning not to set too much store by the tone of the comments. Those who join in the debate are by definition a vocal minority. They certainly have a place in a vibrant and impartial news environment but they need to be kept in perspective.
Now it's an accepted tenet of the modern journalistic landscape that someone out there will always know more about a story than we do. That's why the notion of developing networks has become increasingly important.
The iPM programme on Radio 4 recently constructed a temporary network to build a "map of the credit crunch".
Listeners were directed to the programme's website and asked to say which aspect of the credit crunch most affected their lives. Fuel prices affected most people, but some clear regional differences emerged - and these insights then informed all of the BBC's journalism and helped all of our programmes avoid stereotypes.
Sounds simple. But for me it was important: a radio programme - using "crowd sourcing" - on its own website - to generate important stories and insights about the effect of the economy on specific areas of the UK.
Of course, news organisations also have to adapt to the many networks that already exist.
It's thought that Facebook now has over 90 million active users; that 65,000 videos a day are uploaded to YouTube; these have been joined by sites like Flickr, Twitter and many others. For journalists, these networks represent a good source of information and specialist groups.
The newspaper design guru Mario Garcia told the World Association of Newspapers, "Social networks are the new cities. If people choose to gather there we must be there too." And he's right.
There are opportunities in all these networks to engage new - often younger - audiences who are not consumers of traditional news. And branding opportunities too: the BBC and the FT offer headlines on Twitter; Reuters has a bureau in Second Life.
And so news organisations are learning how to use the technology and the sites that encourage citizen newsgathering to support their traditional purposes of providing professional journalism as widely as possible.
If good journalism is to survive it's essential we all adapt in this way.
But it does raise interesting issues for us.
The need to be able to handle all this user-generated content is affecting the way we structure ourselves. We have established what we call the UGC Hub - a seven-day, 24-hour operation at the heart of our newsroom.
The hub has 23 staff and works with every part of BBC journalism. Four staff from Have Your Say work solely on moderating blogs and debates. And it's needed: on an average day the hub will handle 12,000 e-mails and around 200 pictures. On a big story day those numbers go through the roof. Some 7,000 pieces of video came in to the hub in one week during last July's floods.
When the Archbishop of Canterbury said on the World at One - a lunchtime programme - that some aspects of Sharia Law were inevitable in the UK, more than 9,000 contributions had arrived by teatime. These responses were then fed back in the output later in the day.
Sometimes we bring it on ourselves. We recently ran a feature on "Broadband Britain" and gave people a way of testing their broadband speeds and then plotting it on a map. Within a 36 hour period we received 65,000 contributions.
The hub is now a fundamental part of BBC journalism, providing a rich memory bank of case studies and a pool of potential story ideas.
I think we've probably always underestimated the media literacy of our audiences - especially those from the babyboomers downwards. But the simplicity of digital technology means it's never been easier for audiences to "make judgements about our judgements".
Again, it's not really new to hear what the audience thinks about what we do. We have always had duty logs and letters through which the highly motivated could register their disapproval - or occasionally their pleasure.
Today, if I get 50 complaints on the duty log about something on our News, then I think we've clearly got to look at the way we did that story. It may be that we are perfectly happy with our final judgement.
But I know that 50 people bothering to ring in probably represent a lot more who were fed up or annoyed but didn't take the trouble to tell us.
A few years ago when I was controller of Radio 4, I announced that I was devoting all of the Boxing Day FM schedule to Stephen Fry reading Harry Potter. It was front page news on every paper and I received over 200 letters of bitter complaint - most of them demanding my immediate resignation.
That was quite a high number then. Today with e-mail, that probably would have been thousands. The interesting issue then would have been whether or not the weight of all that complaining would have changed my decision.
When we said we were going to show Jerry Springer The Opera on BBC Two, we received more than 60,000 complaints - most by e-mail. When we said we would show a glimpse of the Danish cartoons on the News, Radio 5Live was subject to an organised text campaign by angry Muslims.
In all those cases, we stuck to our guns and made our judgements based on our values of being independent and impartial.
The BBC has a fundamental commitment to freedom of speech and expression - within the law and within appropriate boundaries of taste and decency (and of course there is much audience debate about where those are drawn).
That commitment is there because free access to reliable, impartial information is fundamental to a liberal democracy and that is what the BBC is here to serve.
But the sheer volume of e-mail and text traffic possible because of digital technology could have the effect of bullying a less confident organisation.
And certainly bullying by blog is a phenomenon that many newspapers are struggling with in relation to their columnists. It's one of the darker sides of the great push to more connection and transparency.
Unsurprisingly, there's a lot of comment on a myriad number of blogs specifically about the BBC and especially BBC News.
For us in journalism, one of our most important responses to this kind of debate has been to launch the Editors' blog, where our programme editors - the people who actually decide what is in the Today Programme or on Newsnight or on the Ten O'clock News, write about the editorial dilemmas they face and their particular judgements.
This section of the BBC website received over a million page views last month.
I am incredibly proud of the Editors' Blog and of my team for being open and transparent with the public.
But as time has gone on, it's clear that in one respect at least, this is a double edged sword. Call us paranoid, but we increasingly have a sneaking suspicion that some of our competitors in the newspaper industry pore over our Editors' Blog to try to pick out phrases and opinions to turn into critical copy.
This doesn't remotely put us off doing it - but it certainly makes us very realistic about the risks and benefits of transparency. Indeed, I long for the day when the editor of a major newspaper - especially a tabloid - writes the occasional blog honestly outlining the reasons behind his or her editorial decisions.
But we are here to talk about democracy. I've touched on how we are using digital technology to establish new relationships with our audiences.
But we are acutely aware that the formal political processes need to be brought into this world too.
To that end, we are about to launch an important new site called Democracy Live.
This will offer live and on demand video from all the main UK institutions and the European Parliament. Users will be able to search across the video for representatives and issues that are relevant to them. They will be able to find out more about their representatives in the institutions and follow their contributions.
The site will also offer detailed guides to how the institutions across a devolved UK work and what powers they have, all the must know information about issues in the news and blogs from our political editors, plus a range of ways for users to comment and contact their representatives and institutions.
And while this will make for a compelling mix on the site, we also want it to be a shareable resource, with video and text content that users can take and place on their own sites or blogs.
So: are there risks to all this engagement with the audience? Of course.
We must always be cautious of over-interpretation - of concluding too much from the select few that interact with us online. As yet they are still but one sub-set of our audience.
And we absolutely must beware of how one of the strengths of the internet - its speed - can become a terrible weakness if the information is not true.
Let me give you a very small example I've seen for myself.
Recently, the BBC declined to publish an internal management review of its coverage. The decision was based on principle, not on its contents.
One commentator suggested the report was 20,000 pages long!
Now the BBC is famed for its bureaucracy, but that would make it 20 times the length of War and Peace.
This error went round the world and back again on the web - unquestioned.
Of course, in reality, our document is not 20,000 pages. It's 20,000 words.
This is not an especially damaging piece of misinformation - but you take my point.
That's not to deny, of course, the impact that bloggers have made and the real stories they have broken. But too often, perhaps, readers of internet journalists are left to their own devices to sort fact from fiction.
Tim Berners-Lee himself fears that his original goal for the web - to link credible information worldwide - could be destroyed.
He has warned:
"The medium can be perverted, giving you what seems to be the world, but in fact is a tilted and twisted version."
Mainstream journalism must guard against running the same risk. In order to survive, journalism must be trusted. And to earn trust, it must be accurate and fair.
Equally, we will always be faced with issues about taste and decency - we saw that with the mobile phone pictures of Saddam Hussein's hanging.
The evolution of technology will undoubtedly raise all sorts of challenges.
Some mobile phones already allow live broadcasting - it won't be long before they all will - and that will bring with it some critical issues around editorial control.
And we must always be alert to hoaxes - most news organisations have been duped at some point, despite the strict controls we have in place.
We must guard against mindless interactivity replacing genuinely useful debate and insights.
We must careful not to encourage citizen journalists to take risks in dangerous situations.
We may find that issues around copyright and ownership of material require more time and resource than we imagined.
And we must continue to consider the motivation of contributors and ask why they are telling us this.
But as I list this roll-call of reservations, they only serve to reinforce something I've always known: that the key aptitude for any editorial leader is good judgement. It was when I joined the BBC; it still is today.
And it is precisely good judgement that tells us that it makes sense to embrace interactivity and citizen newsgathering in its various forms.
There are great and positive opportunities for journalism and for reinforcing citizenship. And "we" can't wait for "them" to come to us. Smart news organisations are engaging audiences and opening themselves up to the conversation our audiences clearly want.
I am conscious that my view is that of a director of News of an organisation that represents what these days are called the mainstream media.
It wasn't long ago that bloggers and traditional news organisations were at each others throats. In truth, many big organisations were slow to respond and saw the internet as more of a threat than an opportunity.
But where the bigger players lacked a degree of humility and agility, the blogosphere appeared to lack a focus or clarity of purpose.
Now, these various elements that make up the modern media are learning to live with each other.
I hope I have demonstrated that the BBC is embracing these changes as positively as we can and should. I believe it's essential for the development of our journalism and our public purpose of informed citizenship.
But BBC journalism is also rooted in some core values - truth and accuracy, impartiality and diversity of opinion, independence, reporting in the public interest and accountability to audiences.
So embrace change and modernise we will, but those traditional values will always remain the lode star of BBC journalism.