Peter Salmon, Director, BBC North

Date: 27.02.2012     Last updated: 18.03.2014 at 18.01
Category: Corporate
Speech given by Peter Salmon at Trinity Journalism Week on Monday 27 February, 2012

I don’t need to tell anyone in this room about the power of journalism. In today’s world of twenty-four hour, rolling, scrolling, multi-platform news not only can a story stick in the national psyche but it can, thanks to the digital age, remain a news story forever. And ever.

The power of the written and broadcast word is a double-edged sword. It can topple governments, galvanise nations or lead to positive social change. But the flip side is that it can create and spread misinformation with incredible speed and perpetuate myths that never die.

The bit of the BBC I run, BBC North, has had more than it’s fair share of myth and rumour. What we call our “Cheese, Chips and Chairs” story. Since before we opened our doors for business last year we have been kept amused by the numerous stories that the media have written about us. Often without even stepping a foot outside London.

My favourites include the appointment of so called 'chair champions' to train BBC staff to use the new chairs in our buildings, or the ' tram trainers' that show us how to use the trams that connect Salford to the rest of Greater Manchester. Oooh, those chairs and trams are so complex up north.

Or ‘Chip Gate’. Allegedly BBC staff were furious that chips were off the menu at MediaCityUK because the wrong type of cooker was being installed in the kitchens. For the record, the cookers can cook chips and they feature regularly on our menu. I can see the headline now – “It’s chips for BBC North”.

Even the announcement that the Blue Peter Garden has moved to Salford was not without a string of ridiculous enquiries. Only last week we had to reassure the media that we weren’t in the process of digging up the bones of Blue Peter’s numerous pets and re-interring them in Salford. The simple reason being that there aren’t any pets buried in the old Blue Peter Garden.

And the ‘cheese’ stems from one member of staff’s realization that they couldn’t make the move from London because there weren’t enough specialist cheese shops in one Manchester suburb. Granted we gave that one to the media. You have to keep a sense of perspective ... and laugh at yourself.

But while these headlines do have a humorous side they do demonstrate that a story – even one that is untrue – has staying power.

That’s the power of journalism and – to inadvertently paraphrase Spiderman’s Peter Parker – with power comes responsibility.

Journalism @ BBC North

I come from a small town in North West England and always wanted to be a reporter on The Burnley Express. I got my newspaper training though on the Chatham News in Kent. I got that job by shamelessly advertising myself in the jobs wanted category of a specialist magazine.

You know how it goes: “Northern oik will work for nothing in return for training”. A familiar theme.

Though I have worked for newspapers, commercial television and in independent production, I think BBC journalism is amongst the best journalism in the world. On average, 80% of the adults in the UK consume BBC news on TV, radio and online each week and in moments of crisis the vast majority of the United Kingdom turn to BBC News. And increasingly the international audience also turns to us for its news as well.

The cornerstone of our journalism is our strong record for impartiality and the trust the audience has in the BBC’s news provision.

Of course we don’t always get it right. No news provider or programme maker can have a one hundred per cent success rate. But considering in news alone the BBC generates thousands of hours of coverage per day, our strike rate is high and the quality consistent across television, radio and online - locally, nationally and globally. We believe in training, we have clear guidelines and a strong central ethos - our core values.

I like to think that BBC News is a virtuous circle. We can make the local national. The national global. And the global local.

BBC journalism has always had deep roots here in the North of England. And not just with network strands like File on 4 and BrassTacks. BBC Merseyside for example regularly generates audiences in excess of BBC Radio 2 and BBC Manchester is currently celebrating its highest reach in five years.

And the recent decision by the BBC Trust to ask the BBC to reconsider proposed changes to local radio demonstrates the strength of feeling of our audience to their local services.

Here in Leeds itself, the station makes about three hundred and sixty-five hours of regional television every year. This includes Look North, Inside Out, Sunday Politics and Late Kick Off. And in terms of local radio – from BBC Sheffield, Leeds and York – 19,000 hours of radio is broadcast on an annual basis.

Leeds also makes the Super League Show – a collaboration between BBC English Regions and BBC Sport - which is broadcast on Monday nights across the North. And Leeds is the only region making programmes for BBC One Daytime – the compelling Helicopter Heroes.

And in case anyone thought that the stories covered regionally had no national impact, over the last few weeks and months alone, our journalists here in Leeds and across the North have broken stories that have generated national – and international – interest.

Inside Out broke a series of stories recently. They covered the reunion of a British and Argentinian pilot reunited almost thirty years after the Falklands War. They followed the UK Border Agency as they raided two sham weddings here in Leeds, a programme that was also broadcast on BBC One.

My personal favourite was the revelation that Adolf Hitler may have lived in Toxteth in Liverpool for five months in 1912.

And the Daily Mail headline? “All Reich, calm down… Hitler lived in Liverpool”. Priceless.

And our new base at MediaCityUK is the newest home for BBC Journalism here in the North of England. Salford is the new home for BBC Manchester, BBC Radio 5 live, BBC Sport News and Newsround.

And this April BBC Breakfast will arrive, marking the first time that a network TV news programme has been made outside London.

The combination of television, radio and online news should not be underestimated and will make the BBC’s new base in Salford the biggest newsgathering centre outside London with a weekly total audience reach in the many millions.

Bringing together all these different news teams in a single building has meant looking at how they operate and co-operate.

The new mantra is collaboration.

BBC Breakfast and North West Tonight will share a studio as well as operational staff including graphic designers and editors. This is a first for the teams in BBC English Regions and network News. But this isn’t only about being more cost effective at a time when every single pound of the Licence Fee needs to be spent prudently. It will create the foundation for even closer working. They are learning a huge amount from each other already, even as we prepare to put Breakfast on air.

And we are already seeing increasing collaboration between television and radio news.

Only last week Radio 5 live’s Victoria Derbyshire hosted a debate in front of a live studio audience of 200 people in the MediaCityUK studios which was simulcast on the BBC News channel and the TV Current Affairs team have also filmed a Radio 5 live outside broadcast on food poverty for The One Show.

To achieve this level of collaboration on-air means that the teams need to work differently across the site.

There are now regular meetings between all the news teams including Sports News and Newsround and there is a shared newsdesk and a joint planning desk that will be joined by R5l and Breakfast. This means, for example, that teams are starting to submit joint and co-ordinated bids for interviews.

The specialist newsgathering correspondents based in Salford – covering the arts, entertainment and health – are also working increasingly on BBC Radio 5 live and network programmes.

And it’s interesting to note that Radio 5 live has opened up their planning meetings to all staff and not just journalists. The site is an open one and so is our ethos.

And the bête-noire of many a newspaper – sending more than one broadcast crew to cover an event – will be mitigated whenever possible by joint deployments where we can to avoid duplication.

These might be small synergies but they are a move in the right direction and are already reaping positive rewards.

And it shouldn’t be forgotten that BBC Sport News and Newsround are both based on the site and add their own distinctive voices to the journalism mix at Salford.

Now you might question why the BBC feels a need to have Sports News when the market and the rest of mainstream media devote not inconsiderable resources to this genre.

It’s simple. The audience expects the BBC to offer sports news coverage – breaking stories as well as in-depth analysis and insight - as part of our journalism mix. They tell us that very clearly when asked.

And the figures speak for themselves. The website alone had more than four million unique users visiting the site on a daily basis and BBC Sport provides news for BBC Radio 1, 2 and 4, the News Channel, the Six and Ten O’Clock News, BBC World TV and the World Service.

Sports journalism is a speciality in the same way that politics, health, the economy and the arts are for example. Indeed the sports industry creates its very own news cycle - from transfer speculation to the financial crises that are increasingly affecting parts of the sports world. And that’s even before we factor in major sporting events like the Euros and the Olympics as well as Wimbledon, the Boat Race and Formula 1.

MediaCityUK is also the home of Newsround. This April this children's programme joins Panorama, Coronation Street and their own colleagues at Blue Peter as one of the few shows that has been on air continuously for four decades.

That is an amazing achievement, recognized last year with a Special Award at the Children’s BAFTAs, for a programme that originally started life in April 1972 as a six-week ‘experiment’. And in many ways we are still 'experimenting'.

Today it broadcasts a daily news bulletin throughout the year, produces a series of award-winning specials on everything from Afghanistan to autism, a Saturday morning football show and runs a very successful website.

From the riots of last summer to the current economic meltdown that is affecting many of the audiences' own families, Newsround interprets the world that surrounds its six to twelve year old viewers with the same rigour and analysis of the rest of BBC Journalism.

And before rolling news was conceived it was often the first news outlet to break stories including the Challenger disaster and the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul The Second.

From John Craven to today’s presenters – Ore, Ricky and Leah – it has launched the careers of a number of today’s leading journalists. Lizo Mzimba, Krishnan Guru-Murthy and Matthew Price all started on Newsround. And who knew that the BBC’s very own Political Editor, Nick Robinson was once a trainee assistant producer on the show?

Since their arrival we have also seen closer ties develop with their journalism colleagues. Before Christmas for example BBC Breakfast supported a Newsround special on autism. Featuring one of the families on the sofa the morning of Newsround’s broadcast undoubtedly helped that special gain an impressive audience. Football Focus and Newsround often share sports stories too. Newsround are developing new platforms to speak for their technologically savvy audience with our R and D departments.

As I said, collaboration is in the air.

Opportunities @ BBC North

But over and above the provision of news from MediaCityUK what does this mean? What is the potential impact and benefits to our audience and to the industry and to you?

Over time I believe that it will be a major contributor in bringing a different range of voices to the BBC in terms of interviews, the places we film, the diversity of activities we cover and the presenters and reporters that are exposed to the national audience.

As well as more easily representing, reflecting and giving a platform to the seventeen million people who live and work right across the North of England, there will be positive benefits for the Creative Industries and the economy across the region. I was in Newcastle last week announcing Hebburn, the first sitcom we have made there for thirty years and that the final of BBC Young Musician will be held at The Sage Gateshead this May. Neither would ever have happened had we not moved North.

And naturally we hope to see an increase in the opportunities available for journalists at MediaCityUK.

The first phase of our migration to MediaCityUK created around seven hundred new posts in departments across the site. Half of them went to applicants from here in the north. But because of the nature of programme making, there will always be churn and change, longer term careers and short-term opportunities.

Currently for example we have just taken on four recent Leeds Trinity alumni to work at BBC North. Caroline Platt, Beatrice Pickup, Claire Harries and Lucinda Day all successfully completed their postgraduate courses here at Leeds Trinity. Between them they have worked on Radio 5 live, Woman’s Hour and You & Yours through our Developing Talent initiative and have gone on to secure freelance work as well.

Before coming here today we asked Lucinda for her thoughts on her time since finishing her postgraduate course. I am sure she won’t mind me sharing what she said: “I’d be lying if I said the transition from my chair in the postgrad newsroom to the 5live newsroom has been an easy one. Over the past four months I have stayed with twelve different friends in three different cities. I’ve worked seven day weeks, 13 hour shifts, overnight shifts and ‘starting at 4am’ shifts! … Easy no – but worth it? Completely.”

What a passion for journalism and it’s paid off. Since the beginning of the year Lucinda alone has worked as a broadcast journalist on a variety of Radio 5 live programmes including Up All Night, Breakfast, Victoria Derbyshire and Richard Bacon.

And the best advice she received from a senior editor at Radio 5 live? “Never be a lazy journalist - make that extra call, find your own stories, and challenge the views of the world around you.” Pretty good.

I admire her passion and enthusiasm and have little doubt she has a promising career ahead of her.

And what it brings home to me is that more than ever before, London doesn’t have to be the only destination when thinking about a career in journalism, television, radio or in the creative industries generally. The changes in the BBC are not North vs. South or London vs. Leeds or Manchester. It’s “London Plus” - we are creating a substantial complimentary centre to London and the whole organisation will be the stronger for it.

The BBC has become part of the exciting and vibrant creative community here in the North of England of which in house is only a small part.

For example, True North based here in Leeds is a leading factual independent with a successful track record of programmes for the BBC and other broadcasters here in the UK and internationally. Most of them stem from their sharp journalistic instincts and experience - including recent Panorama specials on the 2011 summer riots and even BBC One's documentary on Jimmy Saville's death. And we have worked with other companies in Yorkshire including Numiko, Sumo and most recently Pearl Works Productions, created following a successful bid for a Radio 5 live commission.

And I believe that creating a pipeline for talent doesn’t begin at university. BBC School Report which launched six years ago was started to help secondary school pupils make and broadcast their own news via their own website and the BBC. It gives eleven to sixteen year olds the opportunity to make news to a real deadline for a real audience.

This is powerful stuff.

Today a quarter of all secondary schools participate and every March the BBC hosts an annual School Report day. This year, on March 15 one thousand schools – two hundred from the North alone – will take part. It’s more than the total number of journalists expected at the Olympics this summer.

On that single day, there will be a special School Report BBC Breakfast from Salford, 12 School Reporters will interview the UK Party leaders and there will be reports from the Olympic Park where the Handball Arena will be transformed into a newsroom.

And this year, School Report will continue after that single day, covering the Torch Relay and the Diamond Jubilee as well as the Olympics and Paralympics themselves.

Conclusion

The way that news is consumed, delivered and even created is changing on an almost daily basis.

The rise of citizen journalists is gaining increasing momentum and effectiveness as witnessed by the Arab Spring as well as events in Libya, Yemen and most recently in Syria.

But it’s not only areas of political upheaval that generate citizen journalists. Here in the UK there is a growing body of individuals who express their views and cover events.

And it’s amid the increasing plethora of views and opinion that the principles of impartiality and quality that underpin the BBC’s journalism become critical. As media fragments in a digital world, our central tenets underpin a core strength that matters more than ever.