Peter Horrocks: Delivering International News – Challenges and Opportunities

Date: 06.07.2012     Last updated: 18.03.2014 at 17.58
Peter Horrocks' speech at the World Media Summit in Moscow on 6 July 2012.

Good morning ladies and gentlemen.

I have hugely enjoyed the hospitality and generosity of our hosts at this summit. And I have greatly enjoyed discussions with colleagues of all nations. But, with full respect to our hosts, this summit has also shocked me.

It has shocked me because of the fear that I have heard expressed. I have heard fear of social media. I have heard fear of the Internet and I have heard fear about our audiences and what they might do to us.

I have heard this fear yesterday from politicians, although why politicians should be addressing a media summit surprises me. And I have heard this fear from people who announce themselves as journalists, but who actually think like politicians.

But I have also heard hope from the real journalists here. For them the revolution in journalism being brought about by the Internet is the greatest cause for hope in the history of journalism. A few of those journalists have spoken of their hopes in public sessions, but many more have spoken to me privately of their fears. These are the young journalists from countries where the media is controlled by fear, but who hope that the Internet will free them. They come to speak quietly to someone from the BBC, an organisation they look up to, and ask, will we, one day, be able to be proper journalists? And my message today is that Yes, the Internet should ultimately free all journalists to do their job properly. That may take time in some countries, but I am confident that will happen.

Let me explain why it will happen and how my organisation, the BBC, is handling the changes the internet is bringing.

The international news media is going through a revolution that puts the audience in charge. It is a convulsion that is testing every news organisation. With web, social interactivity and globalisation, news brands are in a battle for attention and trust.

Despite being the longest established global broadcaster, the BBC believes it can succeed just as well in this new world, because of its long-lasting values and its readiness to modernise. Today I want to share with you the BBC's understanding of these seismic changes and the rapid reforms we are undertaking.

Gone are the days when audiences were content to only listen to what we produced for them. Social media engagement, with the increasing use of mobile technology, Twitter, Facebook, Skype, means that ordinary people now have the ability to break news faster than journalists and file the first pictures when an event happens. They are able to engage with their peers in commenting. They are performing much of the role that in the past only powerful media organisations could.

Last April in Russia, an official in the Federal migration service told the BBC that “the survival of the white race” was at stake in Russia. The video and story which was published on the BBC Russian website was picked up by Russian social media and press and then by other media around the world. The authorities took action and dismissed the official in question for his racist comments. Social media achieved that.

In Russia the internet has become a vibrant tool for communication and engaging communities. This was evident when people demonstrated on the streets during the recent elections. For BBC Russian the bulk of its publication is now done online, following difficulties some years ago in maintaining radio distribution in Russia caused by the political climate for our broadcast partners here.

BBC journalists were able to provide election reporting that was, above all, factually balanced and that included all points of view, including of course that of the government. The BBC was able to generate a huge volume of social media traffic from people who were sharing their voting experiences, raising issues such as alleged voter fraud manipulation. On election day, BBC Russian recorded over 2 million page views.

Of course alongside the positive information - freeing effects of the internet, there are negatives - crime, sexual abuse, extremist rhetoric and incitement to violence. However in the sphere of journalism, the liberating effect on information is, on balance, positive.

This is how the BBC has been navigating through these changing times. The World Service of the BBC has an 80 year distinguished history in delivering high quality journalism around the world. We broadcast in English and 27 other languages on TV, radio, online and mobile. Our ethos revolves around a view that our journalism must reveal and explain; represent all sides of an argument; and be rooted in impartiality and a variety of global perspectives, rather than any national or commercial interest. And the Internet is enabling us to carry out that role even more effectively.

The BBC World Service has recently undergone a process of major reorganisation. It has brought the BBC World Service fully into the digital age. Language services such as BBC Russian, BBC Mundo and BBC Chinese became online only operations. At the same time we remain totally committed to serving the substantial audiences receiving us on traditional shortwave radio.

For example, the BBC Russian Service's website has more than doubled in size in the last year to 1.9 million. BBC Russian this year has begun broadcasting an innovative daily 10 minute television news bulletin which airs on (TV Rain).

Already our investments in new platforms have led to an increase in our audience figures – 239 million around the world, up from 225million last year. The increase has been driven primarily by our coverage of the Arab spring. BBC Persian TV has doubled its reach in Iran to 6 million, despite facing a campaign of intimidation and censorship by the Iranian authorities. This is the kind of censorship and intimidation that a Media Summit such as this should unite to deplore.

But it is not just the technology media organisations use to distribute news to our audiences that needs to change, but the technology we use to produce the news and the ways that we work together that also need to alter profoundly.

In this increasingly networked world, where an event thousands of miles away can rapidly impact on your life, audiences want to get all the connections. At the BBC we have created an internal network to be able to match that global story. We are strengthening our global newsgathering network by bringing together the hundreds of journalists in our English news teams and the hundreds more who report for our 27 language services. We are training a new generation of multilingual, multimedia journalists who are at ease broadcasting in English as well as their own language and as ready to file a video report for the internet as they are to broadcast for radio.

As well as consolidating and integrating our resources in the field, we are bringing together all of our editorial operations in one brilliant new purpose built building in the centre of London. For the first time in the BBC's history all of the BBC's news operations for the UK and the world will be based on one site. The largest in the world outside China. We believe that this new newsroom can truly be "the world's newsroom". We are excited by what we are putting in place and I invite fellow media professionals to visit us, perhaps if you are coming to the thrilling London Olympics, now less than one month away.

But can global impartial journalism like the BBC's survive? We have seen an unprecedented threat to independent news from around the world. Journalists have faced threats to their lives, censorship through intimidation or faced terror charges in their search for alternative voices. These challenges have never been so severe or varied, as the shocking deaths of Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik in Syria have shown. Here in Russia, who can forget the killing of Anna Politkovskaya or the other journalists from Novaya Gazeta and other publications who were also killed in the pursuit of their work? Last year we lost a BBC reporter in Afghanistan who died doing his job. It is vital that all authorities protect the rights of journalists to report freely and when they meet death in the line of that duty, the authorities must investigate fully to ensure that those who seek to curtail journalistic freedom are deterred.

It is not just physical intimidation that journalism faces. Technological interference also prevents free journalism reaching its audiences.

As a global community of broadcasters and journalists, we should strongly condemn these acts of censorship and harassment and urge the abandonment of these restrictive practices. And all countries should open their airwaves to allow citizens to hear the views from other countries. In the UK channels such as RT (Russia Today) and CCTV from China are freely available. That freedom should be reciprocated.

But despite these challenges, the great new advantage of the internet as a news medium is that it provides a fair and equal environment for the battle of ideas and is less subject to technical interference at a national level. It’s no longer about how big or small you are but being able to effectively distribute the most impartial and trusted news. In the past, Western countries offered the most dominant voice in the provision of international news, now we see many more countries joining in. China, Russia and Iran are investing in international news services.

The BBC welcomes the competition because audiences around the world are able to make a free choice about who they rely on to provide impartial trusted news. So far in our audience surveys we have seen little evidence that these new entrants in the market are gaining the same level of trust as the BBC. Indeed it is hard to imagine that a country like China which is spending (and possibly wasting) billions pumping news to audiences around the world will ever have significant trust when its culture is such that it routinely censors senstive stories from international broadcasters like BBC World News and persists in blocking most international news web sites. The BBC, in contrast, is happy to be judged by the audience response.

Our research also shows that the fear of social media that characterises so much of the debate at this summit is completely misplaced. Some speakers here have criticised social media for being more inaccurate than traditional media or said that it is "socially irresponsible". But the BBC's research in the UK and around the world indicates that audiences trust the news their friends and family share with them via social media far more than the news they get from most traditional media. So, if we want our news to be believed, we need to get our audiences to share it. If they believe us, they will share it. This is now the standard we are setting ourselves at the BBC "do you trust our News enough to share it with your mother, brother, or friend?". Happily, I can report that millions and millions of people around the BBC follow our social media accounts and share our news.

This argument about the role of the media is no longer East v West or North v South. It is no longer about the world views of countries we once called superpowers. It is an argument that will be settled by the greatest superpower the world has known - the Internet. Its openness and transparency provide a level playing field. It creates a battleground for the most trustworthy information and the most compelling ideas. It means we hardly need to argue any more about whose view of news is right. Let's just wait and see. And may the best news win.

So to those politicians here and those journalists who sound like politicians, I say Stop fearing the audience, stop fearing change, stop fearing technology. Produce news that your audience believes in and you can do little wrong. That means some very traditional requirements: accuracy, fairness, respect for others, all delivered with the right modern technology.

But if the media sticks with the old view of controlling the news and not thinking about the audience, it will eventually be overtaken.

Thank you.