Speech given to the University of London Goldsmiths College Journalism
24 April 2003
- thank you for inviting me to open this symposium today.
a good time to be debating the state of modern journalism.
weeks since those amazing scenes in Baghdad when the city's population
realised that Saddam's regime was finally finished.
the defining moment of the war - both for the people of Iraq and for
the tens of millions around the world who witnessed it live on TV.
always been one of the greatest tests for news organisations, and this
is particularly so for a publicly funded national broadcaster like the
So as Editor
in Chief of the BBC, as well as Director-General, I'd like to take the
opportunity today to discuss some of the issues we confronted as a national
and international news organisation in covering the war.
doing so, I hope to give you an insight into the values which underpin
our journalism in peacetime too.
in Iraq was described by some as the first media war. I'm not sure that's
actually true. I'm old enough to remember the same thing being said
about Vietnam nearly 40 years ago and about virtually every other war
are reported by the electronic media largely depends on two factors,
the latest technology available combined with the access that journalists
undoubtedly true in Iraq was that there was more media and a great deal
more coverage than we've seen before.
had to look at the media centre in Qatar to see that the Pentagon had
a media strategy every bit as sophisticated as their military one.
screens, briefing and rebuttal are as much a part of war today as tanks,
bombs and bullets.
in technology in the decade since the Gulf War was obvious from the
range of 24-hour television news channels now available in the UK.
able to provide viewers with round-the-clock coverage and unprecedented
choice, much of it based on live reports from the field.
internet has of course continued to grow in importance as people at
work and at home turned to the web in unprecedented numbers to witness
of reporting, correspondents embedded with military units had unprecedented
access to the campaign and gave the coverage a drama and immediacy we've
not seen before.
just some of the developments which increased the range and depth of
the coverage of this war.
I felt all the UK's main news providers, the BBC, ITN and Sky, served
particular rediscovered the value of a fixed slot for its news in peak
time. It will be interesting to see if, as a result of this experience,
they decide to reverse their current bizarre scheduling pattern for
their main evening news.
advances brought with them new dilemmas and problems we can't afford
correspondents may have given us better pictures and immediate insight
of the battles but how much physical risk for our journalists and crews
is acceptable in return for great pictures and commentary?
do we ensure their reports are placed in the proper context; how can
we guard against "embeds" being seen as "in bed"
with their hosts?
latter point I think there is a need here for a serious piece of academic
research on the impact of embedded journalism.
was the information being given to embedded journalists? And what means
did they have available to them to check the facts they were being told?
24-hour news channels undoubtedly provided more choice for viewers.
we worry that fierce competition to be first with the news on live television
inevitably leads to editorial mistakes being broadcast?
we ensure that being first with the news is not more important than
being right? How do we ensure that we're not placing drama over insight?
course the internet is an unlimited source of information but much of
it is unattributed and ultimately unreliable.
audiences to make sense of this vast amount of material? Which differing
version of the truth should they believe? Who should they trust?
serious challenges for any news organisation aiming to increase the
quality as well as the quantity of its coverage.
BBC, as the country's most trusted source of news and current affairs,
we have a particular responsibility to take account of them.
the increase in sources of news in Britain over the last decade, the
BBC is still the place most people turn to for their information, particularly
at times of crisis.
first two weeks of the war, more than 90 per cent of the population
turned to the BBC and twice as many people were using BBC ONE as their
main source of war news compared to ITV.
get radio figures yet but we do know that listening on the web to BBC
radio rose significantly when war broke out - doubling on Radio 4 and
increasing five-fold for Five Live.
to BBC News Online doubled in the first week of the war, settling down
in the second and third weeks of the war to around three million users
a day - 50% higher than normal.
watching and listening intensified, so too did the scrutiny of BBC coverage.
country profoundly split over the war, we always knew there would be
flak from every side and that our impartiality would be called into
Huw Wheldon, the BBC's former Director of Television, who said in his
Richard Dimbleby lecture in 1976 that a Britain divided puts the BBC
on the rack. And so it turned out to be.
was accused on the one hand of favouring the Bush-Blair position and
on the other of being soft on Saddam.
accused of abandoning impartiality and of sticking too rigorously to
it, of rushing to judgement and being too cautious.
could say if you are under attack from both sides you're probably getting
it right. Personally I don't accept that.
to listen to every critic - whether it be a politician, a newspaper
editorial or someone from the general public - and ask do they have
Was a particular
piece of journalism both accurate and fair? We must never fall into
the trap of believing that just because we are being criticised by both
sides of an argument we must have got the coverage right.
of course, make mistakes and if we do we should say so.
close and constant internal review of all our coverage, we strive to
uphold the highest editorial standards.
never more important than at times of national crisis or conflict.
process of review, both at my level and inside the news operation itself,
meant subtle changes were made daily as to how we were covering the
gone through that process it meant we were able to believe in and defend
the integrity of our reporting, even if it was unpopular with some politicians,
sections of the press and some of the public.
these circumstances reporting dissent is an absolute requirement for
an impartial broadcaster.
back to this later when I talk about how the electronic media in the
States reported the war.
BBC's absolute commitment to independence and impartiality is a relatively
the Suez crisis of 1956 which helped establish these principles.
Minister of the day, Sir Anthony Eden, asked the BBC for time on radio
and television to explain why the French and British had invaded Egypt
and taken control of the Suez Canal.
day the leader of the opposition, Hugh Gaitskell, asked for airtime
to explain why he was against the war and was given it.
view this even-handed approach as standard practice.
then it brought the accusation from Eden that the BBC was betraying
the nation at a time of crisis. In fact there are suggestions that Eden
even considered talking control of the BBC, as legally the Prime Minister
still can, to prevent Gaitskell broadcasting.
as I know this was the first time government and the BBC seriously clashed
over war, but it was certainly not the last.
the Falklands conflict, 30 years later, a senior BBC executive, Dick
Francis, expressed the view that the grief of a widow in Buenos Aires
was no less than that of a British widow, he was roundly condemned by
a government that enjoined the nation and the media to "rejoice"
at military victories.
of war, British governments of every persuasion have sought to use the
media to manage public opinion.
so they have often sought to influence the BBC and on occasions to apply
some of this in David Blunkett's attack on the media for giving too
much credence to claims coming from the Iraqi regime; and again in Downing
Street's attempts to rubbish Andrew Gilligan's reports on the plight
of ordinary Iraqis as looters ran amok in Baghdad.
saw criticism from the Government over the BBC's decision to keep our
team in Baghdad throughout the war, the suggestion being that Rageh
Omaar and others were restricted as to what they could broadcast.
was true they did have minders who occasionally restricted their movements
- something we constantly said on air - they did not interfere with
what was being broadcast.
the ineffectiveness of the minders was illustrated when Rageh's minder
asked Rageh if he could take the following day off so he could spend
it with his family.
absurd to suggest, as some did, that somehow correspondents based in
Baghdad were Saddam's stooges.
see why Government might not have wanted them there but we took the
decision that their reporting met our tests of accuracy and fairness.
should be surprised or overly concerned by the fact that governments
attempt to influence us or assume that it somehow damages our credibility.
We play different roles in a democracy.
was best summed up by our World Affairs Editor John Simpson who wrote
in an article published before the war the following:
the times of Suez, Biafra, Vietnam, the Falklands, the American bombing
of Libya and the NATO attacks on Kosovo and Serbia the BBC reported
the opposition to these wars fully.
every occasion the Government, Labour or Conservative, tried to bully
the BBC into supporting the official line.
every occasion the BBC resisted; sometimes energetically, sometimes
not as energetically as it ought to have done."
about the present conflict John went onto say: "It would be nice
to think that the British Government won't repeat the self-defeating
tactic of attacking the BBC's reporting now as it did during the NATO
bombing of Belgrade in 1999.
BBC hierarchy's defence of itself then was impeccable, and the Government
received a bloody nose.
governments have as much right as anyone else to put pressure on the
BBC; it's only a problem if the BBC caves in."
He is right,
it is only a problem if the BBC caves in.
do we avoid caving in to political and competitive pressures? Let me
try to answer that.
we'll always try to reflect a wide range of views on war or any other
newsgathering operation is crucial to our ability to do this. Our investment
in this area has given us the biggest broadcast news operation in the
world with correspondents in 44 countries.
backed up by the BBC Monitoring operation at Caversham which has access
to 3,000 separate sources of international news and information.
have the UK's widest line-up of national and local TV and radio networks
which together provide an opportunity to air every shade of opinion
in the UK.
national and local perspective on key issues of the day is a defining
feature of the BBC's coverage.
the range of opinion on any major story, we can allow people to see
the full picture for themselves and provide the necessary context and
balance for reports from our correspondents wherever they are in the
believe that it is our job to be physically present in as many locations
as possible and not to simply use other people's pictures and information.
our correspondents to be able to report what they see.
guarding our independence also means we must never be afraid of asking
the tough questions of those in power.
backing off when this country is at war - as some politicians would
like - there's no more important time to hold governments to account.
sure how many of you saw David Dimbleby's interview with Donald Rumsfeld
shortly before the start of the war. It was a courteous yet tough interview
but certainly no tougher than anything British politicians expect on
Today or Newsnight.
Rumsfeld was not used to this kind of approach and his people told us
afterwards they were shocked by the persistence of the interviewer.
were played in the States, many commentators agreed that American interviewers
wouldn't have taken such a robust approach.
certainly wasn't to win some intellectual battle of wills or to trip
Rumsfeld up. It
was all about testing his arguments and not letting him gloss over difficult
is to reflect the concerns and anxieties of the country and the public.
Politicians should not be concerned by tough questioning, if their decision
to go to war is the right one they have nothing to fear from scrutiny.
television today politicians don't face that sort of interrogation.
health of our democracy, it's vital we don't follow the path of many
American networks and lose the will to do this.
it's especially important that we tell people not only what we know
but also how we came to know it and the rules we are working by.
coverage of Iraq, this meant being scrupulous in identifying the source
of supplied pictures and making clear any restrictions our correspondents
on either side of the conflict were working under.
We also produced special editorial guidelines for our journalists reporting
us provide that clear, impartial coverage that audiences are looking
for among the huge number of sources they now have available.
the need to be careful with language and to source stories thoroughly
rather than report rumour and speculation.
the need for those opposing the war to be heard and the need to safeguard
our online sites from being hijacked by campaigners.
and finally, the whole culture of BBC journalism is based on the drive
for accurate and impartial reporting. It's in the DNA of the organisation.
only what is expected from above, it's what people expect of their colleagues.
are some of the ways we aim to ensure the independence and impartiality
of our reporting and we extend the same principles beyond the UK.
to serving audiences nationally and locally in this country, the BBC
performs an important role as a global broadcaster.
has been performing this role since 1932 when the World Service was
founded - mainly as a means of connecting the disparate parts of the
Empire has long gone. The World Service by contrast has never been stronger.
to international audiences in English and 42 other languages and was
described by Kofi Annan as Britain's greatest gift to the world in the
parts of the world the BBC is an "oasis" of reliable information
in a desert of either silence, rumour or half-fact.
places it is the only reliable source of information. In others people
use the BBC as a secondary source to check whether what they have heard
elsewhere is true or not.
when it was run by the Taliban, the World Service was the information
lifeline for virtually the entire population.
eight-out-of-ten people in the capital Kabul still regularly listen
to the World Service.
course, we could never hope to compete in international markets or to
meet the expectations of modern audiences by broadcasting on radio alone.
now includes international TV and online services too.
we have BBC World - our commercially financed international television
channel - and online we provide a range of news services in English
and many local languages as well as streaming all the World Service
language services, making them available to audiences everywhere.
these key planks of our Global News Division are extending the BBC's
Service now has a weekly audience of 150 million people; BBC World now
reaches 300 million homes in more than 200 countries and territories
and traffic to our international online sites is averaging well over
100 million page impressions a month, with over 220 million page impressions
online service had 15 million page impressions in March, higher even
than the September figure in 2001 post 9/11.
surprising to many is the growing demand for BBC services in America
- a country with countless domestic sources of news on television and
US, the BBC World Service is achieving its highest audiences ever with
nearly four million listeners a week.
opinion-formers in New York, Washington and Boston are regular listeners.
a million people are turning to the nightly BBC World television bulletin
on PBS and the New York Times reported recently that the BBC News website
is now the third most visited news site in the US.
I was in
New York and Boston for three days a couple of weeks ago. Because the
war was going on I gave a number of speeches about our coverage of the
I was amazed
by how many people just came up to me and said they were following the
war on the BBC because they no longer trusted the American electronic
Kennedy, the chair of the British Council, was also in the USA during
the war and she told me last week she had a very similar experience.
So I thought
I'd draw my remarks to a close today by discussing this further.
have found since September 11th is an increasing demand for the BBC's
news output in the United States, whether it is on public service radio
or television, whether it is on-line or on BBC America.
the war we were literally getting hundreds of e-mails from people in
the United States saying "thank you" for trying to explain
events. Thank you for being impartial.
of course are still relatively small given the population of the USA
but it seems to me that they represent constituencies who have concerns
about the US broadcasting news media.
journalists in the UK we are still surprised when we see some US news
broadcasts and some of the attitudes the US networks have to covering
read that some senior network executives say that their coverage should
be influenced by what they see as their "patriotic duty" we
year Voice of America pulled an interview they had conducted with Taliban
leader Mullah Omar because of pressure from the Department of State
we were also surprised.
genuinely shocked when we discover that the largest radio group in the
United States was using its airwaves to organize pro-war rallies.
even more shocked to discover that the same group wants to become a
big player in radio in the UK when it is deregulated later this year.
Bill currently before Parliament will, if it becomes law, allow US media
companies to own whole chunks of the electronic media in this country
for the first time.
area of impartiality as in many other areas we must ensure that we don't
still surprised when we see Fox News with such a committed political
position and we are surprised when we see those in government get such
a relatively easy ride from television interviewers.
compared to the United States we see impartiality as giving a range
of views, including those critical of our own Government's position.
in the United States particularly since September 11th that would be
seen as unpatriotic.
was always like this and the requirements of impartiality on broadcasters
in the UK were always different to those in the USA, but that's not
how I remember it.
I was shocked while in the United States by how unquestioning the broadcast
news media was during this war.
has this happened?
I heard expressed in the US rang true with me. The argument goes like
television is now so fragmented there are no 800 pound gorillas around
as there was when CBS, ABC and NBC dominated the American television
As a result
many of the large television news organisations in the States are no
longer profitable or confident of their future.
of this fragmentation is to make government, the White House and the
Pentagon, all-powerful with no news operation strong enough or brave
enough to stand up against it.
particularly so since September 11th when many US networks wrapped themselves
in the American flag and swapped impartiality for patriotism.
becoming clear is that those networks may have misjudged some of their
wanting a narrow, pro-American agenda, there is a real appetite in the
US for the BBC's balanced, objective approach - the kind of journalism
which one US journalist said was refreshing for its "zero concern
about looking unpatriotic".
me finish with the most important point of all.
to the success of any news organisation is holding the trust of its
is first on the list of BBC values that we've just drawn up and is the
foundation on which our whole organisation rests.
the opening sentence of the BBC war guidelines: "Our audiences
should have confidence that they are being told the truth".
seizing every opportunity to improve the range and choice of our output,
we cannot afford to compromise on its honesty and integrity.
constantly resisting any pressures which threaten our values will we
be able to maintain the trust of our audiences.
why we must temper the drama and competition of live rolling news with
the considered journalism and analysis people need to make sense of
why we mustn't allow the tremendous freedoms of the web or the flexibility
of mobile platforms to compromise the high standards which we apply
to other areas of our output.
must never allow political influences to colour our reporting or cloud
pressures may tempt others to follow the Fox News formula of gung-ho
patriotism but for the BBC this would be a terrible mistake.
time we lost the trust of our audiences there is no point in the BBC.
proved anything, it was that the BBC cannot afford to mix patriotism
happening in the United States and if it continues will undermine the
credibility of the US electronic news media.
here for everyone in the UK, a trusted guide in a complex world.
this role best by exercising the freedom to air a wide range of opinion
and to report the facts as best we can.
so, far from betraying the national interest, we're serving it.