Mark Thompson, BBC Director-General
Charles Wheeler Memorial Lecture: given at London conference organised by the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication, University of Westminster in association with the British Journalism Review
Wednesday 20 May 2009
Check against delivery
Some 22 years ago there was a big staff meeting of journalists at Lime Grove, a chance for John Birt, the new Deputy Director-General of the BBC, to meet some of his more querulous troops.
I wasn't at the meeting, I was away in America getting married. I really was, by the way – though it tells you everything you need to know about the mood in Lime Grove at the time that people accused me of inventing the wedding simply as a crafty way of getting out of attending this particular meeting. Anyway it didn't matter. The whole thing had been captured by internal TV cameras and, by the time I got back from my honeymoon, there were samizdat VHS copies aplenty. Some of you will have seen it – if not, I'm sure it's up there next to Susan Boyle and Gordon Brown on YouTube.
At the time, the meeting was written up as a fundamental philosophical clash about the nature of BBC journalism. What was its mission? And how should it be conducted? In one corner, John Birt – a man with a plan if ever there was one, a man who, it was claimed, wanted to systematise the BBC's journalism, to make it more cerebral, more programmatic, more auditable, more securely founded on specialist knowledge and explicit management controls.
And in the other corner, various people of course, but one very well-spoken but also very persistent voice in particular: that of Charles Wheeler. If John Birt was the roundhead's roundhead, Charles came across on the tape as a Cavalier hero – passionately committed to the primacy of the individual correspondent's witness and judgement, deeply suspicious of any attempt to hedge that autonomy and personal responsibility around with systems or checks and balances.
Among his many great qualities as a journalist, Charles utterly lacked that embarrassment gene which stops most of us from pressing on after the second or third supplementary question: each time John thinks he's finally batted him away, Charles just comes straight back at him. Nor is anything resolved – on the contrary, you get the sense that both John Birt and Charles Wheeler left the meeting thinking: this is worse than I thought.
So. The journalist as efficient and reliable cog in a vast news-processing machine or the journalist as romantic hero? Or to put it another way, is there room for strong individual authorship, for passion, for conviction, in so titanic a journalistic enterprise as BBC News – or do the layers, the structures, the hazard assessment forms, inevitably squeeze and suffocate the personal, human side of reporting?
Put it like that and you can imagine where most of the votes would have fallen that night: for many people it was – and remains – a difficult and divisive memory. But it's a debate which in many ways is still with us. I think that you can hear it in those who worry about the risk of multimedia working leading to a homogenising of the output, or in those who – in the context of acute economic instability in the rest of media – doubt whether the BBC can ever sustain internal plurality, different voices, different perspectives; doubt in other words whether the BBC can do anything other than speak in a single, perhaps impressive but also perhaps increasingly oppressive and dominant monotone.
But I want to say that, when I look back on it, the received wisdom about that meeting in Lime Grove feels in many ways like a caricature and that the interplay of individual brilliance and character on the one hand and the inevitable need for a broad shaping of a news agenda and editorial standards and, yes, for management and organisation on the other can be more of a dialectic – potentially a creative and fruitful dialectic – than a conflict.
I worked with Charles Wheeler often over the years and knew him quite well – one of the reasons I feel so proud to have been asked to give this talk tonight. Charles was an intensely committed and individualistic correspondent. One of his many great gifts to the BBC was the revelation that impartiality did not have to mean neutered, colourless journalism. Charles was utterly open-minded and fair, but his work crackled with indignation and anger at injustice and human suffering. He'd seen prejudice and fear first-hand in the country of his birth – Germany – and he never got over it. His work was uniquely marked by an insatiable interest in people. You felt those qualities in his reports from the failed Hungarian revolution of 1956, in his broadcasts from the riots in American cities following the assassination of Dr Martin Luther King, and in his work uncovering the plight of the Palestinians mistreated in Kuwait during the first Gulf War. I saw that last piece of reporting first-hand.
And Charles could fight his corner with anyone. He was certainly very happy to stand up to his bosses, especially if he thought they were in danger of trimming or compromising. I remember him prodding me firmly in the ribs with a mixture of affection and menace. And that was after I was made DG.
But – and it's an important but – Charles also knew that strong editors and a strong newsgathering infrastructure were essential if he and other correspondents were to do their best work. I'm not going to claim that Charles ever embraced the Weekend World methodology – I don't suppose anyone ever had the guts even to suggest it to him and Charles anyway had the intellectual power and cogency to shape arguments and stories without the need for external scaffolding. But he didn't stop contributing to or believing in BBC journalism as a result of that evening in Lime Grove.
And later he would have what was almost a fresh career making a series of unforgettable documentaries for Radio 4 – he was working on his last one the week he died last year.
Over this long and successful final part in his career, Charles brought his unique gifts to an organisation which, despite all the noises off, was manifestly deepening its commitment to news and current affairs: from Andrew Marr to Robert Peston, adding specialist on-air editors of national clout; making its television news bulletins more serious and authoritative; building out one of the world's largest and strongest systems of international bureaux; pioneering a central role for news in the BBC's offering on the web and mobile.
But it was also a BBC which was also developing a new generation of outstanding, individualist foreign correspondents – people with the knowledge and judgement not just to report events, but to help audiences make sense of them. Jeremy Bowen, Justin Webb, Matt Frei, Allan Little, Orla Guerin, Mark Mardell and many more.
Nor could you look at Newsnight, where Charles did much of his best television work, and claim that it lost its edge in the post-Birt BBC. You could say all sorts of things about its presenters, but the idea that they were tamed or turned into analytical automata doesn't pass muster – tonight's richly deserved award for Jeremy would surely have gone elsewhere if you could. Indeed, in relation to Newsnight, one of John Birt's first actions after that Lime Grove meeting was to give the programme a fixed start-time and a bigger budget – two things for which Charles and the rest of the Newsnight team had campaigned for years.
The feared loss of character, the loss of the capacity to sustain the individual voice, never actually materialised.
News is a high-tech business today, we all know that. The public can get their headlines from scores of different sources on myriad devices. All the more reason to value and nurture the moment when another human being – someone with the talent and the training and the courage to do it – punches through all that technology to tell you what's happened and what it might mean.
The challenge for the BBC – and for me, Mark Byford and all of the BBC's editors – remains that of creating and sustaining the space in this large machine for those individual human voices and talents to think and listen and above all to communicate with the public.
In the current debate about the future of public service broadcasting, the BBC is sometimes talked about as if it were monolithic in its journalistic utterances. In fact, from Newsbeat to The World Tonight to Panorama to 5 Live, there is an extraordinary range of internal plurality – not just different styles of the same basic agenda for different audiences, but different arenas in which different agendas can be explored and different journalistic takes pursued.
Look at the way Paul Mason on Newsnight has, in a very crowded market and coming on the air often after formidable coverage on the Ten O'clock News, made the story of the economic crisis his own.
In common with pretty much every other part of the organisation, BBC News is going through another period of intense and sometimes unsettling change. The big themes – moving fully to digital production, creating multimedia newsrooms, eradicating needless duplication, encouraging all of our journalists to experiment with the new technologies and platforms – are not unique to the BBC. Pretty much every news organisation in the developed world is attempting the same kind of transformation.
But – especially against a background of annual efficiency savings set by the BBC Trust and the Government, and the need to find productivity gains and cost reductions everywhere we can – some familiar anxieties return. Can what is done in the name of "productivity" or "efficiency" actually turn out to mean a cut in quality? Clearly there's a risk of that. We need to plan to avoid it and to be ready, if we find that something we've done is hitting quality, to correct it immediately. We're tracking audience perceptions of quality very closely as we go.
And perhaps more pertinent to my theme: while almost everyone accepts that 10 or 20 BBC interviews with the same politician or three TV crews turning up at the same press conference doesn't make sense, is it possible to go too far down the road of sharing and standardising of content so that you do lose the character and individuality of different programmes? Again, I'd say yes. I'm certain the idea of concentrating the firepower of individual programmes on what makes them most distinctive and valuable to audiences and sharing some of the less critical, more generic coverage – especially when the story hasn't changed – is right. But we have to watch how that theory plays out in practice and again be flexible and responsive enough to step in if things go awry. There are no prizes for creating new platforms for BBC journalism at the price of the quality of what we put on our existing core services.
What we're trying to do at the BBC is to find a way of paying for the services of the future – services like the iPlayer, our mobile news service and so on – by delivering our current output at the same or higher quality but with fewer resources.
We did it in the 1990s and used the money to launch our news website, the BBC News channel, Radio 5 Live. Not popular if you were editor of Panorama or Controller of BBC Two, as I was in that period, and saw your budget fall year on year. And yet without it, the BBC would have missed a historic opportunity and the reach of its journalism would be far narrower than it is today.
We're going through a similar process of change today and for similar reasons. So far, there's no evidence that the public believe that the quality of our news and current affairs output is declining – on the contrary, all the evidence suggests that audience appreciation for our bulletins and programmes is going up rather than down.
But the pressures are real and it's understandable why sometimes our journalists feel hard-pressed and are tempted to read a given set of post closures – like the recently announced redundancies in our news-gathering arm – as evidence that today's BBC is not as committed as it might be to its news mission.
I want to say to you that our commitment to challenge ourselves to deliver the best journalism in the world is as strong as it has ever been. In some areas, we believe we can achieve that goal with fewer people. Where we need to, however – and our Islamabad bureau is a recent example – we will add to the number of journalists on the ground. We know that, no matter what technical advances there are, no matter how big the world of blogging and tweeting and interacting becomes, what the public here and around the world expect of us more than anything is great professional journalism.
In recent years, we've reduced the total number of posts in the BBC by some 7,000. Some of those posts were in journalism but, it's worth noting that, even when the present changes are complete, 40% of the total workforce in the BBC will work in journalism. We will still have an unrivalled global reach, enormous strength in depth in specialisms like politics, economics and business, an extraordinary talent pool from which to draw the editors, producers and senior news managers of the future. Our ability to direct resources to major stories over time will exceed almost all news providers. And, in addition to all of that, we will have made a major stride into the world of total digital news.
But all BBC journalists, including myself, face another significant challenge – one which is far sharper than it was in the 1980s when I worked with both Charles and Jeremy in Lime Grove.
Five years ago this week I was appointed Director-General and Editor-in-Chief of the BBC. One of the first things I did was to bring together journalism as a group for the first time, ensuring that at local, UK and global level the BBC has consistent values, ethics and strategy. It also meant our journalism could be made ready for the digital age and I'm delighted to see so many of our big stories, whether it's the first months of Barack Obama's Presidency or the political story unfolding in Westminster now, are offered to our audiences across all platforms. Secondly I wanted to ensure there was more transparency around our journalism. Today that means that we have editors blogs and Newswatch – a programme which allows our audiences to hold our journalism to account – and a new approach to complaints.
There will be some of course who will see some aspects of this – for example, the new focus on sometimes uncomfortable accountability, or indeed the loss of a single post in the Newsroom – as evidence of some wider malaise. Well, let them. Over the past three decades, I've heard too many proclamations of the imminent death of true BBC journalism to take the cries of each fresh crop of Jeremiahs too seriously. The end was nigh when I joined the BBC in 1979. No doubt for some it still is.
The truth – which, to be fair, a different set of critics are only too quick to point out – is not just that reports of our death have been exaggerated but that in many ways the BBC's journalism is stronger and more influential than it's ever been.
And there's the rub. While the BBC has been involved in its own disputatious, boisterous, sometimes rather internally-focused news revolution, far more disruptive and destructive forces have been at work across the rest of media. The crisis of monetisation and media business models is closing newspapers around the world and threatening the ability of many of the survivors to invest as much as they used to in high quality journalism.
The BBC faces financial pressures of its own. The BBC World Service, one of the most valuable and precious set of services we offer, gets its funding through the Foreign Office. In a time when all public funding is under acute constraint, we have to make the case for the benefit and irreplaceability of the World Service more strenuously than ever. We can also point to the success of some recent investments there, like those in Persian and Arabic TV – new services which Charles himself was really excited about . Today's debate about the level of the licence fee, the suggestion of opening up the current six-year settlement, the various proposals for splitting up or top-slicing the licence-fee – all of these emphasise the tangible and present threats to the funding which makes the BBC's journalism possible and the false idea that there is no limit to the efficiencies you can impose without damaging quality. The need to fund digital switchover, the loss of expected capital inflows because of the collapse in the commercial property market and other pressures on both public service and commercial income all mean that our finances are already stretched pretty thin.
And yet we clearly do not face the same level of financial crisis as our colleagues elsewhere in UK media – in ITV and other commercially-funded PSBs, in commercial radio and across the newspaper sector.
The fact that others are economically weaker does not of course mean that the BBC is bigger or stronger in absolute terms. We're not: in headcount and property footprint we're far smaller than we used to be. We stopped the expansion of our network TV and radio services years ago and have no plans to add any new ones. Although there are some who argue that the right answer to the crisis in commercial media is to withdraw funding from the BBC as well, it's hard to see how that would do anything other than reduce the range and quality of content available to the British public even further – and further damage this country's creative industries.
Others worry about something else: namely, the return of a form of monopoly and a consequent collapse in the current level of plurality in UK journalism and beyond. Here's Philip Stephens writing recently in the Financial Times:
"Those tempted to feel sorry for Mark Thompson, the [BBC] director-general, should think again. Behind the smokescreen of tabloid outrage at the BBC, Mr Thompson and his colleagues have just won a famous, or rather infamous, victory. As the recession wreaks havoc on the finances of ITV and other big commercial broadcasters, the licence-fee cushioned BBC is set fair to secure a monopoly over public service broadcasting."
And Philip goes on to say that, despite all the efforts of the UK Government and Ofcom, the broadcasting regulator – indeed despite the BBC's own proposals to develop partnerships and share technology to sustain other UK public service broadcasters – it looks inevitable that, "a few years down the road", the BBC will be the only provider of public service content. "That," Philip concludes rather darkly, "seems to have been Mr Thompson's plan."
Now I can't tell you how comforting it is – after years of thinking of oneself as a hapless, but almost tediously well-intentioned public broadcaster – to discover that one is in fact an evil genius. And it's always nice when anyone accuses you of having any kind of a plan.
But Philip's charge is worth examining closely. Public service broadcasting is not a market but a public intervention into a market and I think you've got to be quite careful about bandying words like "monopoly" about. The public move, often no doubt without noticing it, across public service and commercial journalism and most have access to infinitely more news sources, more perspectives than they did in the age of the old PSB dispensation. BSkyB is a formidable new part of the media landscape, not a PSB in regulatory terms, but nonetheless delivering high quality news as a fresh choice into millions of households.
And yet, despite those caveats, it is fair to ask whether it's desirable that the BBC should become once again the only fully regulated and properly funded provider of public service journalism and other critical PSB content.
Our answer is a definite no. A plurality of PSBs remains highly desirable to help ensure wider plurality, to stimulate creative competition and excellence, simply to offer the British public a choice. The BBC does not want to see the other PSBs fail or lose their commitment to the public service tradition. It does not want to be the last PSB standing.
But we don't believe that weakening or compromising the BBC's own system of independent funding represents any kind of solution to the problem. As Sir Michael Lyons argued in a speech yesterday, editorial independence is underpinned by independence of funding. And of course redistribution of existing BBC funding won't do anything to reverse the net decline in total PSB funding. On the contrary, it's a recipe for further aggregate decline and fragmentation.
But that doesn't mean that the BBC should stand aside from the urgent debate about how to stabilise and sustain a wider choice of PSB and other high quality sources of journalism for the British public. As you'll know, we've proposed a wide range of ways in which the BBC could use its scale, its technology, its training resources and some of its broadcast and newsgathering assets to partner with other news-providers.
We believe, for instance, that there is a great deal we can do to help ensure the future of an alternative source of high quality news on Channel 3 in the nations and regions of the UK.
First we signed an MOU with ITV about the sharing of studios, other news facilities and some rushes to significantly reduce the costs of sustaining a strong alternative service. We believe that this offer is both more achievable and will drive substantially greater value if the solution of the so-called Independently Financed News Consortia is adopted.
More than that. We believe that this support from the BBC can be made fully contestable and that, together with a proportion of the residual regulatory value of the ITV licences, which Ofcom estimates will be worth £45million a year in 2012; with the awarding to the consortia of the advertising windows associated with the existing national and regional news slots – and therefore the ability by them to develop new regional cross-platform advertising models across TV, newspapers, web and radio assets; and with the potential for the consortia to drive natural synergies with their other journalistic assets; it should be possible, without recourse to the licence fee or any other form of public funding, to deliver more than £50million a year of value to sustain these services. Crucially this is not about extending the BBC's own brand or editorial reach. It is about creating a platform which other providers can use to develop their own, entirely independent editorial offerings.
But this is part of a bigger story. We're in advanced talks with several newspaper groups about partnerships in which they get extensive access to our audio-visual assets for use on their websites. We're talking to PA and others about whether the BBC could play a role in a new consortium to make audio-visual content available across the whole UK journalism sector in ways which would help rather than hinder the business models of other agencies and providers. And we're opening up some of our training resources – in particular, the BBC College of Journalism website – to the industry as a whole, indeed to the public at large.
Perhaps the College of Journalism is a good place to end. When we first announced it in the wake of the Gilligan-Kelly-Hutton crisis, there was initial hilarity at the thought of mortar-boards and gaudeamus igitur followed by that familiar fear of some new Orwellian plot. Would this be another top-down attempt rigidly to define and control BBC journalism, to limit its scope and diversity and freedom?
But it hasn't turned out that way. The Journalism website isn't owned by me or the senior editorial management of the BBC. It's a conversation and sometimes a debate between practitioners, based on their experience and their insights – a conversation which we now intend to share with the wider journalistic community and with the audiences we serve.
I've said before that I believe that Charles Wheeler was the finest reporter the BBC ever had. He had a unique authority – an authority based on years of frontline experience – and he loved the cut and thrust of the debate about what matters in the news, about what constitutes the best, about where the boundary lies between acceptable and unacceptable practice. He himself contributed to the College site and soon anyone here or anywhere else in the world will be able to see him explaining what he saw as the essential duty of the journalist:
"You stand for telling what you believe to be the truth about the situation you're covering. That is your basic position. And that's the only guideline I think you need. Are you telling the truth? You're telling the truth as well as you can. You are trying to find it out and this is what you found out and this is what you report."
The debate about the future of BBC journalism will never be over – and thank God for that. It is and should remain a living, dynamic, responsive thing rather than an ossified tradition or a rigid set of rules. For me, for Jeremy I'm sure, for everyone who works in BBC News, Charles Wheeler's achievements, his values, his questioning spirit remain a lodestar and an enduring inspiration. Not just a marvellous part of our past, but a guide for us to the future. Thank you.
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