Peter Horrocks - Dublin City University Symposium

Date: 16.09.2013     Last updated: 18.03.2014 at 18.05
Speech given by Peter Horrocks, Director, Global News, at the Dublin City University Symposium on 16 September 2013.

Good afternoon.

The BBC has had some rather well-publicised difficulties over the last year – most recently the questioning of BBC executives last week in Parliament about severance payoffs. An ‘unedifying spectacle’ as the Chair of the Select Committee put it.

To be frank, events like this have a negative effect on people’s view of the BBC – and on how much they trust us.

After the events of last autumn, when historic allegations about BBC presenters led to tough questions about the BBC’s management, we saw a corresponding dip in our trust scores in the UK. Although this wasn’t reflected internationally.

But the BBC’s reaction to this does tell us something about our organisation. We are journalists through and through, so in the midst of the turmoil we commissioned a special edition of Panorama to investigate what BBC managers might have done wrong.

And it was Jon Humphrys’ forensic on-air questioning of his own boss, the then Director General George Entwistle, which many saw as the final straw before George’s resignation.

Our trust levels have since risen to the levels I just mentioned but we can never be complacent. Trust is fragile.

Two weeks ago the BBC broadcast a report from its correspondent Ian Pannell, who was filming inside Syria.

Ian had witnessed the aftermath of a horrific incident. An incendiary bomb had been dropped onto a school playground, leaving more than 10 pupils dead. Cameraman Darren Conway recorded other victims writhing in agony and pleading for help, their bodies covered in burns.

On the same evening MPs in the British Parliament were voting on whether to take military action in Syria.

Ian’s report was first shown on the BBC’s Ten O’Clock News and watched by millions across the country. But not by MPs in the Chamber. They took their final vote, confirming that Britain would not take military action, at 10.17pm.

The BBC report prompted shock and outrage. Many watched it online – to date there have been more than 1.4m page views on our website.

Across social media sites, people questioned whether the terrible scenes in our report could have made a difference to the outcome of the vote.

Indeed some MPs reportedly said they might have voted differently if they had seen our footage beforehand.

We were even asked if we had deliberately scheduled our broadcast around the timings of the vote.

The answer, of course, was no. The footage had arrived with us at 9.30 that evening and we broadcast it as soon as we possibly could. In fact, given the danger and difficulty of moving around Syria, it’s remarkable the team had managed to get it to us that soon.

Our decision on the scheduling was motivated by one consideration only – to get our truthful, first-hand account of the facts to our audiences as quickly as technically possible.

I think this story is significant for two reasons.

The first is the power and impact of our journalism, and the trust people have in the BBC to bring them the truthful story.

The second is the responsibility which this power gives us, and the fine line we have to walk to keep this trust.

Today I’m going to explore a bit further what trust means for an international broadcaster in the age of social media and multiplatform news.

The BBC has enormous national and international reach.

In Britain our news services reach 81% of the population each week, across all platforms.

In August the BBC’s international website - bbc.com - reached a major milestone: for the first time there were more than 1 billion page views of the BBC’s international website in the month. This represents a doubling of page views since we reached 500 million in November 2010.

Across the world, we have journalists in more locations than any other news broadcaster.

The BBC’s World Service broadcasts in English and 27 other languages, on radio, television and online.

In total our international services have an audience of 256 million people.

We talk about trust as the ‘foundation of the BBC’.

And I believe a news organisation ultimately cannot survive without winning – and maintaining – the trust of its audiences.

Independent studies have consistently shown that we are the world’s most trusted broadcaster.

In the UK, BBC remains by far the most trusted source of news. An Ipsos Mori poll earlier this year showed that nearly 60% of the British public chose BBC news as the single source they would turn to for news they trusted, more than 40 percentage points ahead of our closest rival.

But we can’t take this trust for granted. It is hard won, but easily lost.

Audiences expect high standards from a public sector broadcaster, especially one which they are directly funding.

But why do audiences trust BBC news? And how can we keep that trust?

How, in particular, do we maintain trust in an internet age? Sometimes when I speak to audiences around the world I am asked why there is still a need for news from the BBC when the internet provides all the news and views anyone could require.

The internet and social media do indeed provide a wider range of sources and perspectives than any single news organisation. And five years ago I would have been more anxious than I am now about the internet usurping the role of major news organisations.

Now I see many large news organisations incorporating the best that can be taken from the internet and modernising their distribution using the web. That modernisation is requiring dramatic restructuring and changes to culture. But it is simultaneously reinforcing the traditional values on which organisations like the BBC rest.

We know that audiences trust us because we are:

  • Impartial
  • Accurate
  • Transparent
  • and Accessible

Let me take these four points in turn.

First, impartiality. For the BBC, impartiality goes hand in hand with our independence. Our international mission is clear – to give audiences a global perspective which is not tied to any national nor commercial interest.

This means, as I demonstrated a bit earlier, that we do not shy away from stories because they might be embarrassing or difficult. Far from it – in fact we are sometimes criticised for dwelling too much on stories about the BBC’s own failings.

It means that when we tell a story, we tell both sides of it. It means that, although we are a publicly funded British broadcaster, we are unafraid to cover criticism of Britain or the British Government.

For example, when the British Government lost that vote on Syria, here’s how one major news organisation described the impact on Prime Minister David Cameron.

"Humiliating and wounding... The prime minister has lost control of his own foreign and defence policy and as a result he will cut a diminished figure on the international stage."

This wasn’t the verdict of Iran’s Press TV nor Russia Today but the BBC’s own political editor.

In some of the parts of the world in which we operate – or to some of our international broadcast competitors – an approach like this would be unthinkable. A key test of an organisation’s trustworthiness is its willingness to scrutinise itself on its own mistakes.

Second, accuracy. We aim, of course, to be the first with breaking stories.

But for the BBC, being right will always be more important than being first.

Social media has presented us with many alternative sources of information and images for our news, but it brings challenges too.

Nearly 10 years ago we made a decision to invest heavily in a well-staffed hub to process and authenticate vast quantities of user generated content which are sent directly to us, or discovered via social networks and the wider web.

In an average week, the team handles around 35,000 website and email comments, around 2,000 stills and around 200 video clips.

We take an ever more forensic approach to this process, where necessary studying details such as weather conditions, accents, and licence plates.

Recently we saw some more horrifying footage from Syria, of a man being buried alive by a group of soldiers – clear proof of an atrocity from the forces of President Assad. Or was it?

My colleague in the UGC hub was suspicious of the footage.

He called in a colleague, an Arabic speaker who could identify the accents and uniforms of the soldiers in the video.

They tweeted that they were looking at the footage, but weren’t convinced it was genuine.

Others joined in the discussion online.

Eventually we concluded the footage was probably fake.

The picture and sound quality were, if anything, too good. The pictures froze the moment the man was buried, perhaps because he wasn’t left there. The voices didn’t sound quite right.

So we didn’t broadcast it.

Social media is now at the heart of the BBC newsroom, with social media editors a key part of editorial meetings.

Third, transparency. We strive for accuracy. But being transparent means that if we get it wrong, we say so.

It means that we are accountable to our audiences through a wide variety of means – through feedback programmes, and through a transparent complaints procedure in which we are ultimately answerable to the BBC’s governing body, the BBC Trust.

And it means that BBC executives make themselves available for audiences to quiz them on their editorial decisions. For instance I was in Nairobi at the end of last month as a panellist in a BBC Africa debate which asked whether the international media – and this included the BBC – get it right when they report on Africa. Before this I took part in a Twitter Q&A on the same subject.

Last, being accessible means that we are available to audiences around the world – not just in the obvious sense that they can access our content, but that we produce news which is relevant to them and reflects the world they’re living in.

Perhaps when some of you hear the words the BBC World Service, you picture listeners huddled round a shortwave radio set. But in fact today’s World Service audiences are as likely to be accessing smartphone apps or watching video on tablets.

In Burma World Service listeners are listening to recorded news bulletins by ringing a number on their mobile phones. Our Hausa website was the first foreign language site to be relaunched in a responsive design format, reflecting the fact that 95% of our Hausa audience access our website on their mobiles.

And this of course reflects a wider global shift. We are all using more news sources on more platforms.

Social media means there are ever more sources of information and comment available.

Some commentators and academics predicted that this explosion of information and fragmentation of consumption would spell decline for the more established news brands. I would argue that the opposite is true and that trusted news organisations are more, not less, important, in an age of limitless information.

We know that international audiences use the BBC as a reference point, to verify other sources of information, be they other local media or social media.

And we know that audiences are voting with their feet – or rather, in this instance, with their thumbs and their smartphones. So, although these numbers will not yet be troubling Justin Bieber, the BBC’s Breaking News Twitter feed has more than 7 million followers and BBC World nearly four-and-a-half million, with 3.7m ‘likes’ on our World News Facebook page.

Although trust is fundamental, it is not the end of the story. Our impartiality may mark us out in the market place, but it can’t be our sole selling-point.

There is a fear we could be trusted but never watched. Impartiality doesn’t give us the right to be dull.

For instance, in Kenya, where a couple of decades ago a few international news channels were the mainstay of Kenyan news, there are now more than 140 FM radio stations and 15 TV stations. That’s a lot of competition.

During our BBC Africa debate on the international media, one participant memorably told us that our audiences wanted their news stories to have ‘colour and empathy’.

This Kenyan audience was wary of international correspondents who were parachuted in to cover stories without being able to capture nuance nor having local knowledge, and the sensationalist reporting which often resulted.

This is where I think the scale of the BBC can come into its own.

I think that our news can and should be both international and local. We can be trusted not only because we have an expert global overview because also because we have local reporters who tell stories about the effects of global news on the lives of ordinary people.

This approach isn’t about reporters giving us their own emotional response to a story. It’s not about them letting their personal views get in the way of objective reporting. But it is about using their own experiences and local knowledge to bring that story alive for their viewers and listeners.

Of course, the BBC’s approach isn’t the only way to win trust. It isn’t always the easiest way, either.

Some audiences prefer news reporting which wears its heart on its sleeve. They choose news providers which reflect their own view of the world, which campaign on issues that matter to them, and which give them commentary they will always agree with.

The BBC used to be one of the few independent news options in many parts of the world, for example during the Cold War. Then we were probably more remarkable for our scarcity value than for our impartial reporting.

Now, with a plethora of other news channels available, the BBC’s impartiality marks out a distinct market position.

This isn’t always comfortable for our audiences.

For example, in the first stages of the Arab Spring, the BBC covered the protests against President Mubarak. We reflected the sense of euphoria amongst those in Tahrir Square.

Many of these protestors turned to the BBC for their news. They saw the BBC telling their story and they thought the BBC was on their side.

As the BBC has continued to report the situation in Egypt, our reports have depicted the latest street protests and their violent suppression, including the killings of hundreds of pro-Morsi demonstrators.

And many of our Egyptian audiences have reacted angrily, believing that we have let them down; that we have switched sides.

In fact we have stayed true to our compass throughout, giving an honest account of what our reporters have seen at first hand. We are making an effort to remind our audiences of our even-handed approach. We don’t take sides.

We have a growing number of competitors who take different approaches from us.

Some have missions tied to the foreign policy requirements of their funding governments.

Some, like Al-Jazeera, seem to be changing their editorial compass to suit the countries in which they’re operating.

Unlike the BBC, which has a common ethos wherever in the world it operates.

We welcome the competition. But we haven’t yet seen any evidence that audiences trust this competition as much as they trust the BBC.

Indeed, it is hard to imagine that a country like China which is spending billions pumping news to audiences around the world will ever have significant trust when it routinely censors sensitive stories from international broadcasters like BBC World News – and persists in blocking most international news websites.

I’ve talked about what has changed in global news broadcasting. But I’d like to finish with what has stayed the same. The principles I mentioned earlier – impartiality, accuracy, transparency and accessibility – are ones which would have been as familiar to the first generation of journalists in Broadcasting House as they are to their successors today. And it’s that fact which in no small part explains the BBC’s ‘most trusted’ status.

Thank you.