Helen Boaden, Director, BBC News
Value of Journalism Speech given at The BBC College of Journalism and POLIS international conference
Friday 10 June 2011
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Holding power to account.
That's a broad theme and at one level it's a statement of the obvious – it's what journalists do.
But at another level it gets complicated.
When you set out to inform, educate and entertain – the BBC's original and continuing mission – how much does the audience trust you when you question those in power?
Does it think that you are approaching your subject matter without an agenda?
Or does it doubt your sincerity or your motives?
As Groucho Marx once said..."The secret of life is honesty and fair dealing......And if you can fake that, you've got it made!!"
Of course, some sections of the audience will itself have a vested interest in how they are portrayed.
Their truth will not necessarily be the same as the journalist's – and the balance between those two versions can sometimes be hard to gauge.
How, in these circumstances, can you best judge not just that you are holding power to account – but that you are doing so honestly and fairly?
As a public broadcaster, funded by the licence fee, the key, I think, is confidence.
Confidence, not arrogance.
The dividing line can be thin.
That's why you need confidence in your journalism – but also in your complaints and compliance procedures should you get it wrong.
I want to talk about both sides of that equation.
Last week, there was a memorable front page in the Sun newspaper, with the the headline: Despot the Difference.
It declared: "Two deluded dictators continued to cling onto power yesterday as their corrupt regimes crumbled around them."
They were Libya's Colonel Gaddafi and.... FIFA's Sepp Blatter.
But let's go back a few months, to the time when we were told to believe that FIFA was an august body which might award us the World Cup.
Our Panorama team had been investigating allegations of corruption at high levels within FIFA – among the very people who would determine the fate of our World Cup bid.
We had to decide not only that the programme was merited – based on the strength of our journalism – but also that it was such an important and revelatory investigation that it should run before – not after – the World Cup vote.
It's easy to forget how high the stakes were.
One paper reported that No. 10 thought our programme would inflict "maximum damage" on a bid worth more than £3 billion to the economy.
The head of England's bid, Andy Anson, gave interviews in which he called the BBC "unpatriotic."
When you're in the middle of such a storm, you have to have confidence in your journalism, and in your decision-making.
You have to take the long view. What will this look like with hindsight? Is it justifiable or gratuitous?
Clearly, we thought it was justifiable – an important piece of journalism – though we could not, perhaps, have predicted how quickly the climate would change in our favour.
Of course, we have been here before. In each decade, from its inception to the present day, the BBC bears the scars of its entanglements with those in power.
In the 1930s, our coverage of Spanish politics, culminating in the civil war, led to complaints of ‘red bias' and questions in the House.
When Churchill became prime minister in May 1940 he described the BBC as "the enemy within the gates, doing more harm than good".
In the ‘50s, during Suez, Anthony Eden accused the BBC of "giving comfort to the enemy."
Harold Wilson repeatedly harangued the director-general during the 1970 general election campaign – complaining about programmes ranging from Woman's Hour to Sportsnight – and, of course, Panorama.
In the ‘80s, Norman Tebbit, as Conservative Party Chairman, produced a detailed and unfavourable analysis of the BBC's reporting of the US raids on Libya.
In the ‘90s, John Simpson found himself under attack for his supposedly "biased reports" about the impact of NATO bombing on Belgrade.
In the new century, the Labour party chairman accused us of acting as "a friend of Baghdad."
Now this is not the time and place to unpick these historical events.
My point is a wider one.
It is the journalists' job to hold power to account – to shine light in dark places.
But you can only do so if you have the courage of your convictions – if you have done your journalism properly – and if you are properly able to weigh up the consequences of your actions.
If the BBC is weak, or lacking in confidence, or isn't sure about its editorial judgments and methods, then it runs the risk of being pushed around...of losing its independence in all but name.
In 1940, a European Service news editor, Noel Newsome told his staff: "What we have to do ...is to establish our credibility. If there's a disaster, we broadcast it before the Germans claim it, if we possibly can. And when the tide turns and the victories are ours, we'll be believed."
It was a policy that paid dividends – for all Churchill's complaints.
In 1943, the British historian GM Young said the BBC's news broadcasts had given it "a standing without rival on the European Continent."
Today, of course, we move in a world of Twitter, and blogs, and Facebook – the 24/7 global village.
People are surrounded by more sources of news on more platforms than any previous generation could have imagined.
But in a sea of information, opinion, misinformation and sometimes downright lies, it's vital to know which news you can trust.
So for all the innovations that have changed the broadcasting environment so rapidly, the principles – for us – are the same.
It's important to do the right thing – whatever the pressure. That way, you build your reputation for independence and impartiality.
Last year, the BBC News channel had record audiences for many major news stories.
It recorded the highest reach of any UK news channel – 7.4 million – on the day that Gordon Brown resigned and David Cameron became prime minister. The day after the general election, 7 million watched, and 6.9 million watched the rescue of the Chilean miners. More recently, on 11 March, the channel reached a new record of 8.5 million for the Japanese earthquake. On the same day, the BBC website, too, had record traffic internationally with 15.8m unique users.
Our ratings for trust, impartiality and independence have also continued to rise over the last three years.
There's a direct connection between these sets of figures.
As the perception of trust and impartiality increases, so do our audiences.
The BBC Trust has shown that impartiality is an important factor in the audience determining its choice of broadcast news provider.
And in a major survey published last year, Ofcom found that 91% of people thought it was important or very important that "news in general is impartial".
So if partisan reporting is allowed under a new Communications Act – and there are detailed arguments for and against – then the BBC will do everything it can to maintain and strengthen its tradition of impartial journalism.
But that means we must be strong enough, and fair and honest enough, to admit mistakes when we have made them.
To hold those in power to account we have to be accountable ourselves.
That's why the other side of this story is how we handle complaints about our journalism.
Complaints come in all shapes and sizes.
Believe me, I bear the scars.
We must be strong enough not to cave in to those who complain of a red menace – as they did in the 30s – or that we are being unpatriotic in holding FIFA to account.
We should be confident enough to say to all our audiences – not just those in positions of power – we stand by our programmes.
But at the same time we should be sensitive enough to be able to recognise where complaints have validity – without it undermining our independence or without it being thought to do so.
Much has been written recently about the complaints process.
Is it used or abused by the audience?
Let's take a case in point.
When Israeli commandos boarded a boat called the Mavi Marmara, which was bound for Gaza, in a raid that left 9 people dead last year, Panorama mounted a brave, thorough and forensic examination of what went wrong.
After the programme – which was called "Death on the Med" – the BBC received 2,000 calls, letters or e-mails, three-quarters of them critical.
We estimated that a quarter of those who contacted us were part of a lobby group, using wording recommended by a particular website.
In the end, however, it's not the volume of complaints that counts – wearying though it may be for editors – but their validity.
Subsequently 19 complaints, raising 51 substantive points, were put to the BBC Trust's editorial standards committee, the final arbiters in our complaints process.
In this case, the Trust took pains to praise the programme as "an original, insightful and well-researched piece of journalism." It stressed its impartiality and accuracy.
But three points were upheld by the Trust – two relating to breaches of the BBC's editorial guidelines regarding accuracy and one on impartiality.
We apologised for the mistakes, and accepted the praise.
And that, I think, is how it should be.
Saying sorry should not be seen as a sign of weakness.
Nor should it be seen as such by our opponents who invariably take delight in a BBC apology.
We must be independent in our journalism, but independent-minded enough to recognise our own faults, where they exist – without anyone assuming that we are caving in to political pressure, or being pushed around.
Indeed, it should be seen as a sign of institutional health – that an organisation not only stands up for its journalism, but holds up its hands if it gets things wrong – whatever the status of the complainant.
It should be part of our natural discourse – not a tactic of last resort.
Honesty and fair dealing – the ebb and flow of programme-making and response.
There is, however, an interesting post-script to the complaints about our programme, Death on the Med.
The Trust noted that it was unlikely that a current affairs programme such as this, covering such a contentious issue, would be found to be entirely flawless if it were subjected to the level of deconstruction and analysis that Death in the Med had undergone.
Is it right that we should face such a level of scrutiny?
To my mind, it's just a natural part of the democratic process.
It's just a fact of life that e-mails mean that, these days, viewers can complain – or even praise us, perhaps! – more easily than they could in the past.
It is hard to strike a balance between allowing all-comers to complain and making the process unduly restrictive.
It means the system can be preyed on by interest groups, or individuals with an obsessive interest, or those with the time and resources to pursue an agenda of their own.
Sometimes, when people complain about a lack of impartiality, they are simply trying to impose their version of the truth on us.
It can be difficult for us, or unpleasant.
Understandably, in these circumstances, editors would rather be doing the job, than answering complaints about the job.
It can be time-consuming, and costly.
But it can only be right that everyone is equal in the eyes of the complaints system.
The alternative might be an organisation which holds power to account without being properly accountable itself.
So that the confidence which we need as journalists becomes arrogance.
A form of pride which, inevitably, will lead to a fall.
We need confidence – and we need accountability.
We need systems that work in order to ensure that our journalism is robust.
Here's the reason why.
A fortnight ago, Panorama revealed the abuse of vulnerable patients at the Winterbourne View care home near Bristol.
You need courage, confidence, and a certain scale of operation to be able to do these investigations properly.
They can be long and costly.
For the Guardian, Maggie Brown wrote that the programme was "a timely reminder of the way the media – here the BBC – are able to weigh up evidence and spring into action on the side of whistleblowers, and the vulnerable...when officialdom turns a blind eye."
Don't forget – that as she pointed out – the BBC has been attacked for potentially becoming risk averse after the Hutton inquiry and the Ross/Brand affair.
Some witnesses to the House of Lords communications committee in April suggested they were worried about the impact of our editorial policy department.
We were clear – and said so – that we do authorise investigations and under- cover filming. But we do it carefully.
In this case, we did it because it was the right thing to do: our whistleblower came to us because he had tried and failed to get his concerns acknowledged by his employers and by the inspectorate.
This was a profoundly difficult journalistic endeavour which took a great emotional toll on those involved.
But I am certain that it could not have happened unless we had developed the in-house mechanisms to see the programme through – the right compliance and control procedures.
Our motives in having such procedures are clear: we aim to support BBC journalism so it can thrive in a creative environment – not one where we are ultimately weakened because we make mistakes through lack of editorial processes and oversight.
As it is, I think our record speaks for itself:
- The suspension of an IOC official ahead of the 2012 Olympic vote after Panorama's allegations of bribery.
- The use of white asbestos in China, India, Russia and Brazil – revealed by BBC Global News and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.
- Vote rigging and violence explored by the BBC Hausa service in Nigeria.
- The BBC Northern Ireland Spotlight investigation which revealed the financial and emotional affairs of Iris Robinson.
- None of this is the journalism of a timid organisation.
But there is sometimes a fine line between editorial judgment and error.
The BBC broadcasts four or five hours of news output for every hour of the day – ranging from news bulletins to lengthy investigations, the product of many months of work.
Inevitably, we will make mistakes. We are human beings. What we always try to do is learn from those mistakes and share that learning with the wider BBC Of course, at the heart of any analysis of how journalists hold power to account lies the media's relationship with politicians.
In the United States, LBJ once complained: "If one morning I walked on top of the water across the Potomac River, the headline that afternoon would read: PRESIDENT CAN'T SWIM."
In this country, in 2009, an Ipsos Mori "Veracity Index" gave politicians their lowest score since the index began in 1983 – below journalists, in fact.
Asked "Whether you generally trust them to tell the truth or not?" 80% said they would trust judges; 63% television news readers; 25% business leaders; journalists got 22%; government minsters, 16%, and politicians generally, 13%.
In 2010, according to an audit of political engagement by the Hansard Society and Ipsos Mori, the media was seen by the public as the institution that has the most impact on people's everyday lives – with a rating of 42%, ahead of parliament, business, the Prime Minister and the cabinet.
If you put those two sets of figures together, you realise that the media not only has power – but one that must be exercised responsibly. We are the prism through which politicians are viewed.
In fact, in a robust, deep-rooted democracy such as ours, I think our relationship with politicians is a bit like a tug of war.
It's right that each side should pull. In fact, it's part of the democratic process. Testing those in power but being accountable for it.
But if we are too weak – either in our journalism or our complaints processes – we run the risk of being pulled over.
Of losing our independence – or looking as if we have done so.
But if we are overweening, we can do damage to the body politic.
Of course, we've had our run-ins with the present government – just as we did with the previous one.
The biggest area of debate has been over the comprehensive spending review and coverage of the economy.
You probably heard the Chancellor criticising our coverage of the economy the Today programme this week.
More privately, our editors get phone calls from special advisers, and occasionally ministers, at varying degrees of volume and politeness.
It's right that our coverage comes under scrutiny.
But it's ours, too, to make the case for our coverage, where we feel it's justified.
In the case of the spending review, we're confident that we have the balance right between explaining the government's plans, why it says they're needed – and examining their impact.
That's why we ran wide coverage – across the whole of BBC News, in the nations and the regions – under the heading "The Spending Review: Making It Clear."
In terms of the economic recovery, we're aware that it can be too easy just to report negative news.
But as it happens, just as the Chancellor was criticising us, over on BBC Breakfast the business desk was focusing on job creation in the UK fashion industry.
And just an hour earlier on Today itself our economics editor Stephanie Flanders said very clearly that over the last year employment has been strong.
Our business editor pointed to many other examples in his blog which is posted on our website.
I think there's a broader point here.
It seems to me that all politicians, of whatever party, embrace the BBC's independence in theory – but have occasional difficulties in practice, especially when they are in power.
That means it's important to do the right thing – whatever the pressure.
That way, you build your reputation for independence and impartiality.
To hold power to account – we have to tell the truth as we see it, to the people who need it, independent of government and commercial interests.
But we must do so freely and fairly, and in a genuine spirit of inquiry.
And if you ask the questions of those in power – you must be prepared to answer them – and to acknowledge your own mistakes.
Not only does it go with the territory. It's a vital part of the landscape.
Thank you very much.
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