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24 September 2014
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Greg Dyke


Speech given to the University of London Goldsmiths College Journalism Symposium

Thursday 24 April 2003
Printable version

Press release available

Good morning - thank you for inviting me to open this symposium today.

This is a good time to be debating the state of modern journalism.

It's two weeks since those amazing scenes in Baghdad when the city's population realised that Saddam's regime was finally finished.

It was 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.

Wars have always been one of the greatest tests for news organisations, and this is particularly so for a publicly funded national broadcaster like the BBC.

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.

And in doing so, I hope to give you an insight into the values which underpin our journalism in peacetime too.

The war 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 since.

How wars are reported by the electronic media largely depends on two factors, the latest technology available combined with the access that journalists can get.

What was undoubtedly true in Iraq was that there was more media and a great deal more coverage than we've seen before.

You only 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.

Plasma screens, briefing and rebuttal are as much a part of war today as tanks, bombs and bullets.

The change 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.

They were able to provide viewers with round-the-clock coverage and unprecedented choice, much of it based on live reports from the field.

And the 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 momentous events.

In terms 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.

These are just some of the developments which increased the range and depth of the coverage of this war.

Personally I felt all the UK's main news providers, the BBC, ITN and Sky, served audiences well.

ITV in 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.

But these advances brought with them new dilemmas and problems we can't afford to ignore.

Embedded 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?

And how 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?

On this latter point I think there is a need here for a serious piece of academic research on the impact of embedded journalism.

How accurate 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?

Similarly, 24-hour news channels undoubtedly provided more choice for viewers.

But should we worry that fierce competition to be first with the news on live television inevitably leads to editorial mistakes being broadcast?

How do 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?

And of course the internet is an unlimited source of information but much of it is unattributed and ultimately unreliable.

How are audiences to make sense of this vast amount of material? Which differing version of the truth should they believe? Who should they trust?

These are serious challenges for any news organisation aiming to increase the quality as well as the quantity of its coverage.

For the BBC, as the country's most trusted source of news and current affairs, we have a particular responsibility to take account of them.

Despite 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.

In the 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.

We can't 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.

And traffic 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.

As the watching and listening intensified, so too did the scrutiny of BBC coverage.

With the country profoundly split over the war, we always knew there would be flak from every side and that our impartiality would be called into question.

It was 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.

The BBC was accused on the one hand of favouring the Bush-Blair position and on the other of being soft on Saddam.

We were accused of abandoning impartiality and of sticking too rigorously to it, of rushing to judgement and being too cautious.

Now you could say if you are under attack from both sides you're probably getting it right. Personally I don't accept that.

We have to listen to every critic - whether it be a politician, a newspaper editorial or someone from the general public - and ask do they have a point?

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.

We do, of course, make mistakes and if we do we should say so.

But through close and constant internal review of all our coverage, we strive to uphold the highest editorial standards.

This is never more important than at times of national crisis or conflict.

This constant 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 war.

Having 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.

And in these circumstances reporting dissent is an absolute requirement for an impartial broadcaster.

I'll come back to this later when I talk about how the electronic media in the States reported the war.

Now the BBC's absolute commitment to independence and impartiality is a relatively recent phenomenon.

It was the Suez crisis of 1956 which helped establish these principles.

The Prime 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.

The following day the leader of the opposition, Hugh Gaitskell, asked for airtime to explain why he was against the war and was given it.

Today we view this even-handed approach as standard practice.

But back 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 far as I know this was the first time government and the BBC seriously clashed over war, but it was certainly not the last.

When, during 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.

In times of war, British governments of every persuasion have sought to use the media to manage public opinion.

In doing so they have often sought to influence the BBC and on occasions to apply pressure.

We saw 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.

We also 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.

While it 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.

In fact 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.

It was absurd to suggest, as some did, that somehow correspondents based in Baghdad were Saddam's stooges.

You can see why Government might not have wanted them there but we took the decision that their reporting met our tests of accuracy and fairness.

No one 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.

Our position was best summed up by our World Affairs Editor John Simpson who wrote in an article published before the war the following:

"At 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.

"On every occasion the Government, Labour or Conservative, tried to bully the BBC into supporting the official line.

"On every occasion the BBC resisted; sometimes energetically, sometimes not as energetically as it ought to have done."

Writing 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.

"The BBC hierarchy's defence of itself then was impeccable, and the Government received a bloody nose.

"Yet 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.

But how do we avoid caving in to political and competitive pressures? Let me try to answer that.

Firstly, we'll always try to reflect a wide range of views on war or any other issue.

Our global 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.

This is backed up by the BBC Monitoring operation at Caversham which has access to 3,000 separate sources of international news and information.

We also 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.

This global, national and local perspective on key issues of the day is a defining feature of the BBC's coverage.

By reflecting 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 world.

We also 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.

We want our correspondents to be able to report what they see.

Secondly, guarding our independence also means we must never be afraid of asking the tough questions of those in power.

Far from backing off when this country is at war - as some politicians would like - there's no more important time to hold governments to account.

I'm not 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.

Donald Rumsfeld was not used to this kind of approach and his people told us afterwards they were shocked by the persistence of the interviewer.

When excerpts were played in the States, many commentators agreed that American interviewers wouldn't have taken such a robust approach.

The aim 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 issues.

Our job 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.

On American television today politicians don't face that sort of interrogation.

For the health of our democracy, it's vital we don't follow the path of many American networks and lose the will to do this.

And thirdly 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.

In our 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 the war.

They helped us provide that clear, impartial coverage that audiences are looking for among the huge number of sources they now have available.

They highlighted the need to be careful with language and to source stories thoroughly rather than report rumour and speculation.

They emphasised the need for those opposing the war to be heard and the need to safeguard our online sites from being hijacked by campaigners.

Fourthly, 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.

It's not only what is expected from above, it's what people expect of their colleagues.

So, these 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.

In addition to serving audiences nationally and locally in this country, the BBC performs an important role as a global broadcaster.

The BBC has been performing this role since 1932 when the World Service was founded - mainly as a means of connecting the disparate parts of the British Empire.

Today the Empire has long gone. The World Service by contrast has never been stronger.

It broadcasts 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 20th century.

In many parts of the world the BBC is an "oasis" of reliable information in a desert of either silence, rumour or half-fact.

In some 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.

In Afghanistan, when it was run by the Taliban, the World Service was the information lifeline for virtually the entire population.

Today, eight-out-of-ten people in the capital Kabul still regularly listen to the World Service.

But of course, we could never hope to compete in international markets or to meet the expectations of modern audiences by broadcasting on radio alone.

Our line-up now includes international TV and online services too.

On television, 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.

Together these key planks of our Global News Division are extending the BBC's reputation worldwide.

The World 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 in March.

Our Arabic online service had 15 million page impressions in March, higher even than the September figure in 2001 post 9/11.

What is surprising to many is the growing demand for BBC services in America - a country with countless domestic sources of news on television and radio.

In the US, the BBC World Service is achieving its highest audiences ever with nearly four million listeners a week.

One-in-four opinion-formers in New York, Washington and Boston are regular listeners.

Nearly 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.

Why is this happening?

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 war.

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 news media.

Helena 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.

What we 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.

During 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.

The numbers 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.

As broadcast 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 the war.

When we read that some senior network executives say that their coverage should be influenced by what they see as their "patriotic duty" we are surprised.

When last 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.

We are genuinely shocked when we discover that the largest radio group in the United States was using its airwaves to organize pro-war rallies.

We are 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.

The Communications 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.

In the area of impartiality as in many other areas we must ensure that we don't become Americanised.

We are 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.

I think compared to the United States we see impartiality as giving a range of views, including those critical of our own Government's position.

I think in the United States particularly since September 11th that would be seen as unpatriotic.

Maybe it 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.

Personally I was shocked while in the United States by how unquestioning the broadcast news media was during this war.

So why has this happened?

One theory I heard expressed in the US rang true with me. The argument goes like this.

American television is now so fragmented there are no 800 pound gorillas around as there was when CBS, ABC and NBC dominated the American television news media.

As a result many of the large television news organisations in the States are no longer profitable or confident of their future.

The effect 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.

This is particularly so since September 11th when many US networks wrapped themselves in the American flag and swapped impartiality for patriotism.

But what's becoming clear is that those networks may have misjudged some of their audience.

Far from 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".

So let me finish with the most important point of all.

Essential to the success of any news organisation is holding the trust of its audiences.

Trust is first on the list of BBC values that we've just drawn up and is the foundation on which our whole organisation rests.

To quote the opening sentence of the BBC war guidelines: "Our audiences should have confidence that they are being told the truth".

So while seizing every opportunity to improve the range and choice of our output, we cannot afford to compromise on its honesty and integrity.

Only by constantly resisting any pressures which threaten our values will we be able to maintain the trust of our audiences.

That's why we must temper the drama and competition of live rolling news with the considered journalism and analysis people need to make sense of events.

It's also 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.

And we must never allow political influences to colour our reporting or cloud our judgement.

Commercial pressures may tempt others to follow the Fox News formula of gung-ho patriotism but for the BBC this would be a terrible mistake.

If over time we lost the trust of our audiences there is no point in the BBC.

If Iraq proved anything, it was that the BBC cannot afford to mix patriotism and journalism.

This is happening in the United States and if it continues will undermine the credibility of the US electronic news media.

We are here for everyone in the UK, a trusted guide in a complex world.

We perform this role best by exercising the freedom to air a wide range of opinion and to report the facts as best we can.

In doing so, far from betraying the national interest, we're serving it.

Thank you


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