A glimpse of journalism's future
- 23 February 2011
- From the section Middle East
As I leave my post as world affairs correspondent for the BBC News website, I would like to reflect on the shock I experienced nine years ago when I left the "mainstream" BBC to join the then orphan child of News Online.
I found that I was in direct contact with the public. Horror. This had not happened to me before.
For several decades, I had been broadcasting from a studio or on location at home and abroad, but always insulated from the listeners. Letters, then the only means of communication to a correspondent, were quite rare.
Someone would occasionally write in and the BBC postal system would catch up with me some days, or even weeks, later. It was, perhaps, a word of praise or a hint of complaint. Sometimes I replied. Sometimes I did not.
But writing online proved to be a different experience. It means the piece sits there in front of the reader. It is not something they might have half-heard over the airwaves. And they can contact you immediately. They do.
I joined in the spirit of openness by putting my e-mail address at the bottom of all my stories. This meant, of course, that I opened a pathway for comment or complaint, and this became a very crowded conduit at times.
I suddenly felt like a government minister at parliamentary question time. At first it was bruising. Slowly, though, I began to develop the kind of thick skin that politicians have. I came to understand how they can survive, enjoy even, the cut and thrust of public debate and insult. Something about ducks and water came to mind.
Insults had little effect after a time. After all, they are simply emotions. They contain no arguments. Arguments have more impact, much more. They force you to reconsider your stance. Is the BBC, are you, really taking an impartial, balanced position? What always hurt was when someone pointed out an error of fact.
Corrections and lessons
I had a policy of replying to all but the most foul-tongued messages, and found that even those who had sworn at me in their first flush of anger often apologised when I asked for argument, not insult, and they had had time to calm down. That is one of the characteristics of the internet - instant access can lead to instant channelling of anger, often regretted later.
I engaged in quite long e-mail correspondences with various critics. Of these, I remember an American living in London who thought the BBC very overrated and very leftist. On the other side was MediaLens, whose editors and contributors believe that the BBC is a corporatist supporter of the establishment.
Both, in fact, had corrections to offer and lessons to teach. But the BBC could not survive if it took advice solely from either of them.
My liveliest exchanges, however, revolved around two specific subjects - 9/11 and the Middle East.
I disturbed the hornets' nest of 9/11 conspiracy theorists while sceptically reviewing a film called Loose Change, which claimed that 9/11 was a set-up by the Bush administration.
There were, I think, probably a couple of hundred outraged responses. One reader took me all the way through the formal BBC complaints system on the grounds that I had misrepresented the film, as if it was some well-considered documentary. The complaints panel decided it was not.
Complaining is now very easy, by the way, and the BBC explains how you can do it. You do not even need to live in the UK. This reader lived in Canada.
Source of news
The other e-mail storm followed a story I wrote about Gaza, which said that people should not believe everything they see on video taken in conflict situations. The example was Israeli video of an attack on men supposedly loading Grad rockets onto a truck. It turned out that the "rockets" might well simply have been oxygen cylinders.
Palestinian supporters wrote in by the dozen to say that, at last, the BBC had seen through Israeli propaganda. Israeli supporters accused me of naivety and worse.
Then I did the reverse story. I said people should not trust the language used in conflict, concentrating this time on the words of Hamas, which often hid a harder intent. Of course, the e-mails this time were the other way round - praise from Israeli supporters, complaints from Palestinian.
The other thing I have experienced over the past few years is the growth of the internet as a source of news. I gave a talk some time ago to a school of journalism and said that the concept of the world waiting for news crews to get to disaster zones was over - witnesses there would be taking their own pictures.
This process would then develop in ways we cannot foresee, the "unknown unknowns". The lecturer on that course had his doubts but the trend has accelerated even faster than many of us thought it would.
The internet has become not only a resource for journalists, it is becoming part of the news itself.
And I have seen how the BBC News website is no longer an orphan child. Many in the wider organisation have leaped forward to claim, if not paternity, then guardianship. But it has changed the BBC and will go on doing so, while preserving, one hopes, the best of BBC practice.
Welcome to the future.