James Harding - 2014 BBC News Festival

Date: 28.04.2014     Last updated: 25.06.2014 at 12.02
Category: Corporate; News
Speech given by James Harding, BBC Director of News and Current Affairs, at the BBC News Festival in New Broadcasting House, London, on 28 April 2014.

Good morning and welcome to the News Festival. Over the next two days, I hope we will examine the big issues in news, question the people who make it and consider how best to deliver it.

No one in this room needs reminding that, a year ago, the BBC - and BBC News & Current Affairs, in particular – was emerging from what had been a testing time. Our job, after Savile and McAlpine, was chiefly to get back to work: to show that we had not lost the confidence, the ambition or the courage to report the news, get stuck into contentious issues and pursue stories in the public interest. And I think we have done just that.

We have shown unwavering commitment to reporting some of the most dangerous and difficult situations in the world, whether in Syria, the Central African Republic or Ukraine.

We have dedicated ourselves, like no other news organisation, to reporting the issues that matter at home, leading the way in coverage of the Scottish referendum as well as the floods across many parts of England and Wales this winter. We have captured the meaning of the moment when it has really mattered, whether the birth of Prince George or the death of Nelson Mandela. We have unearthed unexpected stories from the local histories of the First World War to contemporary life in the Yarmouk refugee camp; from the inner workings of Birmingham social services to the inside story of the sale of the Royal Mail; from the history of the Military Reaction Force in Northern Ireland to the child pornography network that led to a sordid shack in the Philippines. By dint of hard work and sound judgment, we remain the pre-eminent broadcaster in reporting politics, the economy and business in this country.

And, in a year that’s had neither an election nor one dominant story, it’s easy to miss what a significant 12 months it has been. The British government considered military action against the Assad regime following a chemical weapons attack on the outskirts of Damascus, but Parliament voted against it. Syria, meanwhile, is proving to be the horror story of our times: more than 100,000 killed, millions displaced, cities of refugees on its borders. The brutal murder of the soldier Lee Rigby in Woolwich shocked people across the country, even as anxiety grew about the small but growing number of would-be jihadis heading from Britain to Somalia and Syria. The signs of a rapidly gathering economic recovery accompanied by the real impact of austerity across the public sector have dominated conversation from kitchen to boardroom to Cabinet tables. The apparent rise of Nigel Farage’s UKIP played ever more visibly into political calculations. British forces worked towards their departure from Afghanistan. The uncertain consequences of the Arab uprising have played out visibly and violently across Egypt and Libya. Terrorism flared at the Westgate Mall in Nairobi. The election of President Rouhani in Iran has changed the dynamic in the Gulf; China’s president has launched an assault on corruption; and, in just a year, a new Pope has singularly revived interest, not to mention faith, in the Roman Catholic church. And the UK’s famously unpredictable weather proved, for what felt like an age, to be miserably predictable.

For all these stories, the BBC has proved not only the most trusted source of news in this country, but the most popular. It is a credit to you that roughly 80 per cent of people in this country turn to us, in one form or other, for the news each week. Not because they have to, but because they choose to. Because, while we have and no doubt will make mistakes, audiences know that news matters more to us, that we deliver more in quality and range, that, like no other news organisation, we strive to be accurate, to be impartial, to ensure diversity of opinion and the fair treatment of people in the news.

That said, we all know we live in an ever more competitive marketplace for news, at a time of galloping technological change, with a commentariat that is quick to judge and audiences with rising expectations of our work. We are the best news organisation in the world, but we have to keep asking ourselves: are we good enough?

With that question front of mind, we – by which I mean Fran Unsworth, the Deputy Director of News, the News Group Board and I – have made some changes and are working on more. So, before settling into a conversation with Emily Maitlis and taking questions and comments from you, I wondered whether you’d indulge me for 15 minutes or so to talk through what we’ve done and what we’re hoping to do.

In order to encourage original journalism, to strengthen editorial oversight and to enable us to lean into the news, we’ve made some operational changes in the way we run the news day. The 9am meeting is chaired by me or Fran; the 3.15 is now overseen by Gavin Allen, the newly appointed News Editor, and attended by either me or Fran; and we have introduced a 6.40 meeting, hosted by the Editor of the 6/10 and attended by editors of Newsnight, Today, World News as well as Mary Hockaday, Gavin and, predictably, me or Fran. The English Regions are now represented at the 9am meeting, so that stories from across BBC local radio and regional TV can make it on to national news and programmes. Gavin – the News Editor - sits in the heart of the newsroom and is there to ensure we follow up leads, to encourage variety between bulletins and programmes, to hold or pull stories that are not ready to run and to champion original journalism from within the Network, English Regions, the Nations and World Service.

We have introduced a weekly meeting for on-air Editors and Correspondents – the cast list ranges from Nick Robinson to Will Gompertz - to share story ideas, plan for longer term projects and exchange the tidbits of news that can lead to stories. And, likewise, we have introduced a weekly Current Affairs meeting, where editors of Panorama, Newsnight, Today, Radio Current Affairs, TV Current Affairs meet to discuss their plans and share ideas, so as to avoid duplication as well as editorial dead ends.

And, while I appreciate that these organisational changes to the plumbing of our news organisation may not be as interesting as the recent management reshuffle at Manchester United, I mention them because they matter: they are part of a concerted effort to ensure that, for every one of us in BBC News, the priority is the story – getting it right, understanding it fully, telling it well.

We have to, of course, be alive to our critics, however annoying or painful the criticism. With that in mind, we’ve introduced a regular opportunity to review our work – the News Review – where we consider questions of balance, fairness, bias and accuracy. This complements the Big Stories sessions, where we look ahead at subjects we expect will dominate the News - ranging from the UK economy to the relationship between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the Scottish referendum to the forthcoming European elections.

In order to ensure we all get to spend time and energy on our editorial output, we’re trying to be more efficient. We’ve reduced the number of boards, as well as the frequency and length of meeting times. The News Group Board, for example, has gone from being a 3 to 4 hour meeting every fortnight to a monthly meeting of just over two hours; we have dissolved roughly a dozen more boards across BBC News, because rather than diffuse and duplicate authority, I’d rather give individuals the power and responsibility for their decisions.

Licence fee payers expect us to deliver ever greater value for money. So, we have sought to improve financial visibility across BBC News and Current Affairs. Richard Dawkins was appointed Chief Financial and Operations Officer to oversee finance, strategy and operations across News. He is cutting back the costs in News HQ – aka my office – and integrating finance and strategy functions across News, World Service and English Regions. We have just completed the first annual Budget Week - six full days of budget meetings, which I chaired, and at which we reviewed, department by department, region by region, programme by programme and outlet by outlet, our expenditure. We are now working on the next round of cost savings. We have taken more than £40 million out of the BBC News budget over the past three years; we now need to find more than £20 million more in cost savings in the next couple of years.

On the issues of diversity, equality and disability at the BBC, my view remains that we – by which I mean me and every one of us who has the power to appoint and promote people within News and Current Affairs – have to do something determined about this.

Over the past few months, I’ve had a number of one-on-one meetings with many people here and we’ve had a run of roundtables with disabled journalists, women across news and colleagues from the BBC’s Black and Asian Forum, among others. And the first thing to note is that people overwhelmingly start out by saying this is a terrific place to work – they’d just like it to be better.

I, too, want to make sure the BBC is both a rewarding and demanding place to work, a place where it is easier to move around, where we make the most of the huge variety of talented people we have and they get to make the most of the great variety of opportunities available at the BBC. And, in this, I am convinced we have to stick to the principle that the best candidate gets the job.

But if we really are determined to make the BBC more representative of the audiences it serves, then we have to intervene. There is no single fix that is either practical or fair. Instead, we have to set in motion a great many things which will, together, add up to a fundamental change. Please forgive me if this feels like a long list of things we’re doing: this is not going to be fixed by a silver bullet, but, as the saying goes, by silver buckshot.

Following discussions with the BBAF, we are changing the diversity targets for the local radio and regional news teams in our big cities. At BBC London, for example, 21 per cent of the team is from an ethnic minority background. Mike Macfarlane has committed to raising that to 28 per cent – ie roughly in line with London’s population – over the next two to three years. Birmingham, Manchester and Leicester, for example, will do the same for their cities.

Across News, we worry that we have a tendency to recruit in our own image, so all members of the News Group Board have taken a course in unconscious bias. The Programmes Department – Ceri Thomas’s department - has reached an agreement with the NUJ to recruit from the George Viner bursary scheme for students who come from a black and ethnic minority background. We’ve also set up a fund within Programmes to underwrite attachments from the World Service language services – the thinking being is that will do two good things, bringing people across from World Service and create new opportunities in languages.

English Regions – David Holdsworth’s teams – and the Nations are taking on 45 new apprentices across the country, a scheme we’re introducing with a clear intention to widen the range of social backgrounds and increase diversity across the BBC. We are going to recruit 10 apprentices across News with the same determination. We are going to host an event for Creative Access on 5 June here at the BBC to bring a number of smart, go-getting graduates from ethnic minority backgrounds to explore further job opportunities in the BBC. And I’d like to make a plug for the RISE mentoring scheme, which is run by the BBAF and Diversity Centre, and encourage all of you who can to sign up as mentors.

On air, the appointment of Mishal Husain to Today, Kamal Ahmed to the post of Business Editor and Ritula Shah to replace Robin Lustig on the World Tonight are all significant and prominent changes. The success of the Bilingual Reporters – people like Nomsa Maseko and Anne Soy, among many others - is changing the look and sound of the BBC.

But to those who say this is not enough, I agree. There is much more to be done on diversity across the BBC, on air and off it.

BBC News has a cadre of women in top management and we have a growing bench of senior women managers across News. We’re addressing the imbalance on air. Georgey Spanswick has just been appointed as the new Breakfast presenter for BBC Radio York, Jenny Lee Summers as the early morning breakfast presenter on BBC Radio Merseyside. Carrie Gracie has been appointed China Editor, Laura Kuenssberg has come back for Newsnight, Penny Marshall has been appointed Education Editor. The list goes on – and will there are more such appointments to come.

Likewise, we’re working to make changes off-air. Liliane Landor is running a very successful programme in World Service called Global Women in News; Mary Hockaday is now working with Liliane to extend it to women in Network News and English Regions. Jim Egan is about to launch a women’s leadership programme within Global News Limited.

At a meeting on opportunities for women in News, Inga Thordar made the case that women are well represented in junior positions, but thin out the higher up the organisation you go. She proposed a sponsorship scheme for women in band 10 and 11 jobs. She has looked at how such schemes work – and work effectively – in other organisations. And we are going to introduce it here: members of the News Group Board will act as sponsors – providing career advice and assistance – to up to 30 women who can apply to be on the scheme for 18 months. If it works, I’m keen to see whether we can do the same for colleagues from black and ethnic minority backgrounds.

We have created five new posts to strengthen our journalism about disability and we are committed to make good on our aspiration to be the best news organisation for disabled journalists to work at, as well as being the best provider of news for disabled people. Gary Smith announced last week the appointment of Nikki Fox, herself a disabled journalist, to lead a new disability unit based in Salford. Carey Clark has just signed up the brilliant Ade Adepitan to present The Travel Show. And while I was delighted to see Gary O’Donoghue is going to Washington to cover US politics for the next two years, I’d like to make sure that disabled colleagues across the BBC feel they have the support they need to advance through the organisation. So I have asked Keith Blackmore, the Managing Editor, to oversee career development for disabled journalists across the BBC.

The BBC should, surely, be the best news organisation in the country to get a job and prosper if you come from an ethnic minority background, if you are a woman, if you are disabled. Our target should not be to be good enough, but to be much, much better than the rest. We have a long way to go. And we will need the active support of people across management, of colleagues in the unions and of journalists throughout the organisation to make it happen.

And what about what’s coming up? There are a fair few pieces of work that, across BBC News and Current Affairs, are likely to dominate the coming months.

First, digital transformation. This is, to my mind, the most exciting time to be a journalist since the advent of television. Mobile and social media, in particular, mean there are new ways to get and tell stories to more people than ever. But if either complacency or bureaucracy means a great broadcaster like the BBC drags its feet, our audiences will simply go elsewhere. The job in hand is to build a 24/7 newsroom for the mobile and social media age; to make the most of greater connectivity so that BBC Online is the best video and audio service in News; so that our rolling news channels work hand-in-hand with the web; and to reorient our newsgathering operations so that we really can be digital first. We are doing some of the most innovative and intelligent work in digital news – from Local Live to the Hausa app, from Trending to Go Figure – and we’re going to do much more: we’re going surprise people by showing them, as we did with BBC Online and BBC iPlayer, that a great incumbent broadcaster like the BBC can be this country’s digital pioneer - nothing less than the most inventive place in news.

Internationally, Sir Howard Stringer has been looking at how we can take the BBC’s global audience of roughly 250 million people to 500 million by 2022. He will report his findings next month. It has made me feel extremely privileged and proud to see the way in which the return of the World Service to licence fee funding has prompted us to reaffirm our commitment to delivering news to audiences of need around the world, to commit to a protected and, preferably, growing budget and to explore how to deliver more of the World Service’s journalism to audiences at home.

On the budget, we will, as mentioned, set out how we are going to make the further necessary cost savings required between now and the end of this licence fee period. I hope to lay those plans out by the summer.

Across the UK, I really believe that we are witnessing a revival in local journalism and I hope the BBC can play a part in it. We are going to host an event with the Society of Editors in Salford at the end of June, where we will look not so much at what’s happened in regional newsrooms around the country, but what’s happening now. We have a great deal to learn from our competitors, potential partners and new start-ups in the provision of local news.

And, in Current Affairs, I believe these last few months have seen the BBC deliver a slate of powerful, surprising and controversial films for TV. We should be proud of our output, but we are also the most popular and most powerful current affairs broadcaster: we should expect more of ourselves. We need to think how we can do the best possible work with the independent sector; how we land stories that really matter; how we tell stories; how we research stories; and how we reach all kinds people on all kinds of screens, whether televisions, tablets or mobiles.

BBC News has an essential role to play in the coming arguments about the BBC’s own future, the licence fee and the Royal Charter. Over the coming months, I will look to many of you to help me research, understand and set out a thoughtful and thorough vision for the Future of News – what our audiences will be wanting, where technology is set to take us, where new news providers are going and what our own programmes and products will look like.

But I finish where I started: our job is to get on with the news. As we all know, the best argument for the BBC is not to tell people how good we are, but, in what’s on screen and on air, to show them.