James Harding: Journalism Today

Date: 13.01.2014     Last updated: 18.03.2014 at 18.12
Category: Corporate; News
James Harding, BBC Director of News and Current Affairs, delivers the WT Stead lecture, entitled 'Journalism Today', at the British Library on 13 January 2014.

Thank you. And a heartfelt thank you to the British Library for inviting me here this evening to mark the memory of WT Stead, a man once described as a journalist with 'a pen touched with fire'.

To so many journalists, Stead has been the inspiration, the pioneer of the modern Press. His zeal and idealism, his restless fury at inequality and injustice; his belief that dogged, daring investigations could capture the public’s imagination and prompt society to change for the better; his muscular opinions, his accessible design and his campaigning newspapers – and, no doubt too, a dab of ego, showmanship, and human folly – has made him the journalist’s editor.

I remember standing in the newsroom of The Times in late 2010 when the then Home Editor told me of a story that Andrew Norfolk, our correspondent based in Leeds, was working on. It was about child sex grooming: the cultivation of young, teenage girls by gangs of men who plied them with drink and drugs and passed them around middle-aged men to be used for sex. And I remember thinking: ‘This can’t be true, this feels Dickensian, like a story from another age.’ It felt suspiciously like an attempt to recreate WT Stead’s defining investigation into child prostitution. The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon was published in 1884 and, as this audience well knows, exposed the sale of young girls for sex in Victorian London and the repulsive business that enabled men, as Stead chillingly put it, to enjoy “the exclusive luxury of revelling in the cries of an immature child.”

Yet, child sex grooming was not, it turned out, a story of Victorian times. As Andrew Norfolk’s fearless reporting over two, now nearly three years, has shown, it was a fact of life in 21st century Rotherham, Rochdale, Blackpool, Oxford and other towns across the country.

In fact, a century after his death on the Titanic, a casual reading of some of WT Stead’s writing leaves you, initially, struck by how much remains the same. The Press – and I use that word as a shorthand for the established news media, i.e. both newspapers and broadcasters – the Press can still be, as Stead conceived of journalism at the close of the 19th century, “an engine of social reform” and, as he put it, “a rival of organized governments.” Columnists, talk radio hosts and the commentariat on the TV sofas still make their names ripping into what Stead called “the moral eunuchs” of Westminster. And, hand-wringing about the culture of newspapers is not new either: WT Stead deemed some of Fleet Street’s newspapers to be “drivelling productions…without weight, influence or representative character.”

But the fact that there is an echo of Stead’s words a century later cannot disguise the fact that the news is in the throes of a revolution.

The case I would like to make to you tonight is that the era that started with Stead – the era in which the Press had a legitimate claim to be a unique check on the powerful and the sole interrogator of the establishment; the era in which editors had unrivalled power to command public opinion and shape the political agenda; the era in which the Fourth Estate was a clutch of established institutions run by identifiable individuals in control of the news – that era is over.

In the age of Twitter, Youtube and Facebook, Buzzfeed, Vice and Upworthy, Stead’s claim that “the Press is the greatest agency for influencing public opinion in the world...and the true and only lever by which thrones and governments could be shaken and the masses of the people raised” suddenly looks like it is in play. The established news media no longer monopolises – and may not for long dominate - the means of production and distribution of the news. Digital technologies – aka the internet – have handed those powers to any individual. Anyone with a story, a point of view and a Twitter account can set the agenda. If you choose, the ‘Powers that Be’ are you.

Digital technologies are wreaking catastrophic damage on the business models of many newspapers and broadcasters. Advertisers are finding faster, more responsive ways of reaching their potential customers. Would-be newsmakers see the barriers to entry tumble. And while Bruce Springsteen may have bemoaned the 57 channels on cable back in 1992, today there are millions of alternative ways of getting the news.

The revolution I am talking about involves more than just economics. But the starting point is that, for more than a decade now, money and jobs have been draining out of newsrooms. In my five years editing The Times, we went through four rounds of cost-cutting. Now at the BBC, the five year freeze in the licence fee means that we are cutting £60 million out of the budget of News and Current Affairs, leading to hundreds of job losses.

You don’t have to work in news to be alive to the issue: the pool of labour correspondents who reported working life in Britain, the training ground for journalists such as the late, great John Cole, has disappeared; the numbers of foreign correspondents have been hacked back, notably by the US TV networks; and, most alarming has been the collapse of the classified advertising market and the impact it has had on local newspapers: The Press Gazette has reported that 242 local papers shut between 2005 and 2012; the latest company results from Johnston Press state that it cut 1,300 jobs in 2012, some 23 per cent of the workforce; almost half the employees of Northcliffe Media went between 2008 and 2012, falling from 4,200 to 2,200 according to its owners the Daily Mail & General Trust. Claire Enders, the media analyst, has calculated that 40 per cent of jobs in the UK regional press have gone in the course of five years.

And, let’s be clear, fewer journalists does not mean less news, it means more PR – more corporate puffery, more canny product placements, more unchecked political spin. Which is fine, I guess, if you take Groucho Marx’s view of the world: “The secret of life is honesty and fair dealing,” he said, “…and if you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”

Digital technologies also pose really interesting challenges to the three essential elements of making the news: getting stories, telling stories and choosing stories.

First, take story getting. Last week, I heard the editor of a Chinese newspaper trying to play down the threat of the internet to the Press. Only a newspaper, he said, could break the Watergate story. Not only is that untrue. Tomorrow’s Watergate story might well break on a blog, a tweet or a Facebook page. It is also unlikely. For digital technologies have changed not only the delivery of news, but the sources for it, too. The one thing that links the MPs’ expenses scandal, Wikileaks and Snowden – three of the biggest stories of recent times - is that they have all come from digital files: a CD Rom, a database, a hard drive. And the sources for these stories are not the frustrated mandarin or the leaky political contact over a liquid lunch. They are the IT crowd – a younger generation of people with access to encrypted data, generally suspicious of established institutions and, often, with strong views about how they want that information disseminated. (Indeed, they tend to want their media to be committed to the cause and ready not simply to report the information, but campaign on it.)

Then, consider story telling. Yes, you can say that all new formats are digital reinventions of old ways of communicating: the e-mail revived letter-writing, Twitter is a modern telegram, Youtube is Candid Camera and Instagram’s a Polaroid picture. But these new formats are creating exciting competitors to the well-known 2 minute 15 item on a news bulletin or the 450 word article in a newspaper. Look at Now this News, which delivers the news in 6,15 and 30 second videos, easily shareable and chiefly for mobile; or take a look at Geofeedia, which enables you to follow a story on Twitter by the location of the tweeter; or use Touchcast, which creates a Minority Report-style smorgasboard of interactive screens on the iPad, and imagine the possibilities of creating your own multi-media news story; and watch a vlogger such as Philip DeFranco or JacksGap and it is clear that, thanks chiefly to Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Sergei Brin and Larry Page, the modern computer has more or less put the combined power of the TV studio and the newspaper printworks in the hands of any imaginative individual - and to dizzying effect.

And, third, let’s talk about editing the news – choosing which stories matter and where they run. That, traditionally, has been the role of the night editor on the newspaper backbench or the output editor in the gallery working on the news bulletin. But that, too, is changing. Reddit has an algorithm that drives up stories based on popularity with readers. Storify allows users to collect social media and curate their own stories. And software such as Google Analytics and Chartbeat means editors do not need to decide what is most interesting to audiences: they can track, second by second, story by story, who is viewing what.

All of this means that the future of not only the institutions of broadcasting and print, but of the building blocks of our journalism –the bulletin, the programme, the channel; the article, the front page, the edition – they are all up for grabs. Change is sweeping every part of the news business. As a result, the next few years will be extremely demanding for anyone who works in news.

But, if you are a working journalist and find all of this about as uplifting as the weather forecast, then I think you’re missing the point. Because I am, in fact, extremely optimistic about the future of journalism. I have real confidence in the prospects for the news media. And if you ask me that annoying question, whether I see the glass half empty or half full, I’d say two-thirds full. In fact, I think this is the most exciting time to be a journalist since the advent of television.

Professional journalists cannot expect to have the influence we once did, but, if we’re clever, if we’re innovative and if we’re trustworthy, we can earn it. This is because we live at a time when there is an unprecedented hunger for information and ideas, because the proliferation of new news providers means the number of working journalists is, actually, rising, because the tools available for story telling and story getting are more powerful than ever and because, as I hope to make clear, the new technologies have unexpectedly revealed the enduring value of some old principles in journalism.

Let’s not start with the media industry, but the world we face. This is an exceptionally consequential moment in history. And, to my mind, there are two overarching stories.

As we look ahead to European and local elections in May, the vote on Scottish independence in September, the General Election in 2015 and, quite possibly, a referendum on membership of the European Union a couple of years after that, we are set to decide – economically, socially and constitutionally - what kind of country we want to be, and Britain’s place in the world.

At the same time, we are witnessing an age of realignment globally. This goes beyond the fact of globalisation, the reality that international forces from climate change to terrorism to energy prices have a direct impact on our daily lives. There is a reset under way. Economic power is tilting from West to East, North to South. The old institutional arrangements by which the West managed the world are being tested.

This is playing out everywhere. For example in the Middle East, where it appears the US has stepped back, the Iranians may yet come in from the cold and the Saudis are left wondering about the future of their long-standing alliances – all with life-changing consequences for people from Syria to Egypt, Israel to Iraq. Across the planet, the rules of engagement are changing.

At such a time, there has never been a greater need for original reporting, insightful analysis and challenging opinion. People making choices need information and intelligence. We need journalism. And, in Britain, we are extremely fortunate to have a boisterous, curious and courageous Press.

Both the BBC and Fleet Street have taken some knocks in the last few years and, in their own ways, for good reasons. Much of the criticism was justified, change was needed.

But I believe in journalism. I believe that journalism can enable democracy, improve society and empower the individual. When it comes to stories in the public interest, I generally believe that society has more to fear from secrecy than to gain from privacy. I hold that Fleet Street is one of the best things about this country and the BBC is the best in the world at what it does. If either are inhibited or diminished, I think that both the British people lose out and Britain’s standing in the world falls. And so I worry when politicians and judges weigh in, either frequently or eagerly, on the behaviour of journalists and news organisations. At a time when our society needs curious, inquisitive journalism more than ever, I think we need to be extremely vigilant against encroachment on press freedom and freedom of expression.

This is as true for the newcomers to news as it is for the established news media. And one of the other reasons I take a positive view of the future is that journalism, serving different products and different platforms, is thriving.

The Office for National Statistics shows an overall rise in the number of journalists. It states that 62,000 people said they worked as journalists, in newspapers or as periodical editors in April/June 2011, and that this had risen to 70,000 in June 2013. And if you look carefully, it is easy to see why. If you looked just at the Buzzfeed website last night, you would see they are looking for investigative reporters, a Science Editor and a Business of Education reporter, among a long list of others; in New York, they’re hiring a News Editor, Entertainment Editor and Deputy Foreign Editor in London and a National Security Reporter in Washington DC. (And, oh yes, a Deputy Geeky Editor.) If it sounds like the website that was founded by Jonah Peretti and made its name with lists and hilarious pictures of cats is muscling up to become a serious news machine, it is.

One of the easier predictions to make about the future of journalism is that established newsrooms and news start-ups are going to do a lot of borrowing each other’s clothes. While Buzzfeed and the Daily Beast have been hiring outstanding journalists from The Times and The Guardian, those papers have been learning the arts of list-making and viral video. The BBC now has more people following its @BBCbreaking Twitter feed than watch the 10 o’clock news on any given day. (Question Time, hosted by David Dimbleby, has a life of its own on Twitter – not to mention Dimblebot, an imagined robot version of Dimbleby with its own Twitter account and a devoted fanbase that meets monthly in a Hackney cinema to watch the programme screened live, alongside a Twitterfall of Question Time-related Tweets and rounded off, I am told, by people doing the Dimbledance to the music at the close of the show.)

Nor is the technological innovation all one way, new media to old: The Daily Mail has, in the past five years, transformed on-screen formats and our understanding of the web – and Mail Online has the audience to show for it. BBC Trending, which identifies and examines online trends, offers an old-school analysis of the viral web while experimenting with In-tweet broadcasting. And, looking further ahead, when I think of Tesco’s move into media content and the National Trust’s communications to its 4 million-plus membership, it’s easy to foresee unlikely players in publishing and broadcasting.

The tools of technology also make it an exceptionally exciting time to be going after a story. Of course, a journalist is a fool to rely solely on Google or Wikipedia for information. But they are just as stupid to ignore them: the modern search engine has given us all a running start at any story. Citizen journalism is not just a competitor to established news media, but a streaming source of information and ideas for it. And the internet has turned our audience into a giant fact-checking machine: journalists are more directly and immediately accountable; our viewers, listeners and readers do not need simply to throw a shoe at the TV or put their foot through the paper, they can promptly e-mail or tweet us to point out our mistakes. This can be embarrassing, no doubt, but surely makes it more likely we will get it right.

The BBC has a team dedicated solely to harvesting User Generated Content and, in the short time I have been there, I have seen it transform the coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing, the street-fighting in Cairo, the political row over Tesco’s and Next’s employment practices, not to mention the recent weather. We have, for the first time, used a drone to deliver aerial pictures. We have looked on, intrigued, at journalists using Google Glass to give, literally, an eyewitness account. And, most significantly of all, it appears that we are in the foothills of datajournalism: if you get a chance see what ProPublica, the US investigative journalism venture, have done. They collected data on how 1.7 million American doctors issue 1.1 billion prescriptions a year. They then empowered the American public to examine it and find out what it told them about their local doctor. The results are fascinating – and show that we are only just beginning to imagine what and how we can learn from public data.

In one other counter-intuitive way, the wave of new technologies has made me confident about the future of journalism. And it is that what used to matter now matters more than ever.

To be sure, the internet has made everyone acknowledge that we live in an age defined by real-time news, global news and news on social media.

But it has also flushed out the value of the opposite of those things – the need for the slow, for the local, for the authoritative voice.

Yes, breaking news channels, websites and tweets need to be fast, but slow, disciplined and meticulous investigations as well as considered and patient analysis mark out the very best newsrooms. Whether it has been The Sunday Times’ long pursuit of Lance Armstrong, Channel 4’s dogged investigation into Plebgate, the Mail’s tireless campaign on Stephen Lawrence, they have excelled thanks not to speed but time. And, in my experience, whether it has been coverage of child sex grooming, the family courts, adoption or tax avoidance at The Times or, more recently, showing first-hand the assault on civilians in northern Syria or exposing the bloody work of the Military Reaction Force in Northern Ireland, these projects have always taken longer than expected and been better for it.

Likewise, it is true to say that we live in a globalized world and to be at the BBC, where we deliver news to 250 million people across the planet, not only in English but 27 other languages is, again, a reason to be confident about the future. But the very accessibility of international news has also revealed what plainly matters to people: namely, local news.

It is not widely known, but it should not come as a surprise, that the BBC’s largest audiences for the news are for the regional bulletins at 6.30. If the 6 o’clock gets 4.5 million viewers, the combined regional bulletins generally get a million more.

It underscores why the BBC must, if it is to be a public service broadcaster, deliver on its obligation in local news. I say this because there is what I consider to be a mistaken view that the BBC should rein in its local news coverage for fear of aggravating the economic woes facing local newspapers. We have a direct interest in the health of local newspapers and regional newsrooms. We thrive thanks to vibrant public debate and courtesy of the stories and ideas unearthed by our colleagues in rival news organisations. But, let me be clear, the problems facing the local newspaper industry are not the BBC’s fault. The classified advertising market has moved online, but the local newspaper industry’s problems lie with the likes of Google, Facebook, Amazon, Gumtree, Ebay and a long, long tail of others. I am acutely concerned by the pressures facing the local newspaper industry and we at the BBC will do anything to help. But the BBC’s primary responsibility must be to serve licence fee payers – and they want and are entitled to the best possible local news services we can deliver.

And, while social media can make anyone into a journalist, citizen journalism has, to my mind, reinforced the value of the professional journalist. When there are so many voices out there, so many with hidden patrons and private axes to grind, so many confusing opinions for news, then there is something simply priceless about a voice you can trust.

Which brings me, by some happy coincidence, to the BBC. I hope I have made clear this evening that I am alive to the challenges that face all media incumbents, perhaps none more so than the most important news organisation in the world. BBC News and Current Affairs operates 39 local radio stations; 12 regional television teams; both national and global 24 hour TV channels; a 24/7 website, news programmes and documentaries on TV and radio seen each week by 80 per cent of the population in the UK; World Service and [the commercially funded]* World News TV, as well as news in 27 different languages on a mixture of TV, radio, web and mobile apps, all reaching around 250 million people around the world.

And I say this not simply because I think that £2.80 a week for all that – plus Sherlock, Mary Berry and Strictly thrown in for free – represents extraordinary value for money. But because such strength means that we are singularly vulnerable if we kid ourselves that the rules of this technological revolution in news do not apply to us. If we are complacent, defensive and flat-footed, then we will be sunk. We will have let down our audiences and they will go elsewhere.

If, though, we learn on the move, then the BBC has singular advantages in this changing world. The advent of 4G means that bandwidth on mobile is, simply, getting wider: the last decade was the time for real-time text on your PC; the coming one will be for video on the mobile in your hand. That’s good news for a broadcaster. And we are, by history, by culture and by dint of our funding model, open to sharing. In an age when story getting and story telling will depend so much on shareable information, we are open to it. Indeed, the power of the BBC lies not just in the 8,000 journalists who work for News and Current Affairs but in harnessing the 300 million people who use BBC news.

But put all those things aside: the real strength of the BBC comes down to one thing. We are trusted. Trust is our most prized asset – and the key to our future. It is rooted in the BBC’s uncompromising commitment to accuracy, impartiality, diversity of opinion and the decent treatment of people in the news. It requires us to guard jealously our independence. And it depends upon us striving, ceaselessly, to be fair, reliable and open to ideas. In what will be an ever noisier world, there is, I believe, a great future for the voice you can trust.

In this, WT Stead’s rallying cry, defining the ‘New Journalism’, holds true for the BBC as for all other journalists. “It is something to have an inspiring ideal, and it is well, to be reminded of the responsibilities that attend upon the power which has come to the journalist as an unexpected heritage from the decay and disappearance of the bishop and the noble.” More than a century later, the journalist remains. And, if we do the right thing, we’re just getting going.

* Amendment for clarity, added 14 January 2013