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Michael Grade


Michael Grade CBE

BBC Chairman

Making the important interesting: BBC journalism in the 21st Century - The Cudlipp Lecture, London College of Communications

Monday 24 January 2005
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Ladies and Gentlemen, it's a great honour to be asked to inaugurate the Cudlipp lectures.

Hugh Cudlipp was one of the giants of British journalism and one of its greatest editors - and, I will admit, a hero of mine.

It's especially fitting that the Cudlipp lectures should take place here at the London College of Communications where so many fine journalists have learned their trade. I know a good number of them now work for the BBC.

Of course when I started in journalism there was no such thing as postgraduate journalism training courses.

People became journalists by all sorts of strange routes. My own path to Fleet Street took the shortest of short cuts. It was 1960 - by the way, it was all fields round here then! - and I'd just left school, a spotty 17-year-old wondering what to do with my life.

I had a brief career chat with my father who had presumed I would go into the family business. I said I didn't fancy showbiz (well, I was only 17).

He quickly changed tack and had a brainwave. I liked football, he said, so how about becoming a sports writer? "Sounds good to me," I said. "You can write, can't you?" he added, only half joking.

Now my father, in his long career as a theatrical agent, had got to know just about everybody. So it came as absolutely no surprise when he rang me 20 minutes later and said he'd fixed it. He was the best agent in Britain, after all!

He told me to turn up at the offices of the Daily Mirror on Monday morning at 10.00am and ask for Hugh Cudlipp.

Just to make sure I wasn't late he got Arthur, his driver, to pick me up.

The commissionaire at the Mirror saluted very smartly when the gleaming, long wheelbase blue Bentley glided to a halt.

Hugh Cudlipp, editor-in-chief of the most powerful newspaper group in Fleet Street, was equally courteous.

He took me to see the sports editor, broke the news to him that I was joining his staff at £10 a week and told him to turn me into a sports journalist.

The sports editor, who I don't think had ever met Hugh Cudlipp, showed me out and back to the, er, waiting limo.

The commissionaire who had saluted me in, saluted me out. The sports editor's jaw scraped the tarmac. I got back into the blue Bentley. And there I was, just out of school and already one of Fleet Street's finest. And all on pure personal merit, of course!

I spent six years at the Mirror and ended up with my own column - 500 words a day and a picture byline 'Mike Grade'.

Hugh Cudlipp told my father that if I'd stuck around, I might have made Mirror sports editor - could you ask for higher praise?

Cudlipp's own story and the philosophy of journalism it embodies is fascinating. Not just because it's built from the stuff of Fleet Street legend. But because it contains important lessons for journalists today - including the BBC's journalists.

So let me give you a brief life. Hugh Cudlipp was born in Cardiff in 1913. His father was a commercial traveller - in, believe it or not, bacon and eggs.

Aged 15 Cudlipp joined a local paper. It folded. He joined another. That folded too. In fact Cudlipp found the editor, who had just heard the news that he was out of a job, trying to hang himself with the cord of his office blind and had to cut him down with his scout knife.

There was a spell in Manchester - Cudlipp later said that confronting Kruschev in the Kremlin was no problem, having, as he put it"run the gauntlet of dealing with the mayors, aldermen, councillors and chief constables" of provincial England.

And then Fleet Street, and the features desk of the Mirror.

This was the mid-Thirties when British tabloid journalism was being invented, that intoxicating brew of stunts and strip cartoons, oversized front page pictures and headlines in the biggest, blackest, type - all put together with a flair for the memorable phrase and an unquenchable cocky irreverence.

"God it was fun," Cudlipp said later. "It was a gamble," he said, "but a glorious gamble, conducted in the edgy atmosphere of an unlicensed gambling club expecting a police raid."

But what really made the Mirror special was its willingness to break taboos, challenge the powerful, say the unsayable.

In 1936 it was the Mirror, with Cudlipp as features editor, that finally broke the establishment conspiracy of silence about the abdication crisis and splashed the story of Edward and Mrs Simpson across its front page.

By the early Fifties Cudlipp was editor-in-chief of the Mirror, and over the next 15 years he fashioned a newspaper of unstoppable force and vigour.

His journalists were schooled to find, as he put it, "the human angle even in the most arid of subjects," and then tell that story in plain English, tersely subbed and punchily headlined.

He gave his readers what they wanted - entertainment, human interest - but he never patronised them by underestimating their capacity to deal with difficult subjects.

He pioneered "shock issues" - special editions investigating tough social issues: slum housing, the treatment of old people, child neglect. Cudlipp called them "an exercise in brutal mass education."

By the mid-Sixties the Mirror had the biggest circulation of any newspaper in the Western world. It sold five million copies a day - which translated into a readership of 14 million for each issue.

And then it started to go wrong. In 1961, IPC - the company that owned the Mirror - bought the Daily Herald, the official Labour Party paper.

It haemorrhaged money but IPC guaranteed it for seven years.

After three years, in an attempt to turn things round, they changed the name - to the Sun.

But even with Cudlipp's magic touch the Sun resolutely refused to rise.

Eventually IPC sold the title - in truth they practically gave it away - to a bright young Australian called Rupert Murdoch who had just bought the News of the World.

Rupert Murdoch had spotted a gap in the market - for, in effect, a daily edition of the News of the World, only raunchier, frothier, cheekier, and not exactly overburdened with aspirations towards mass education.

It took on the Mirror. And it won - not just in sales but in decisively shifting the agenda of popular journalism towards sex, sport, TV and celebrity.

Which is where, 30 something years on, we are now. And which is where I take off my former Mirror journalist hat and put on my hat as Chairman of the BBC. Because I believe that BBC journalism can learn from Hugh Cudlipp's legacy.

Now of course there is a large part of Cudlipp's inheritance which is of no interest to the BBC. Cudlipp was always intensely and overtly party political. That part of his legacy can have no significance for the BBC. Due impartiality is, and must remain, one of the cornerstones of BBC journalism. I'll have more to say about that later.

But, set that to one side and you find that Cudlipp's journalistic purposes and those of the BBC overlap to a surprising degree.

In order to make that case, I need to start with a slight detour into the recent past.

Twelve months ago, the BBC endured one of the gravest crises in its history.

Lord Hutton reported. The BBC chairman, Gavyn Davies, resigned. The next day the DG, Greg Dyke, also went.

This crisis originated in a failure in the BBC's journalism. In a way, it's a measure of the weight and significance attached to BBC journalism that a single mistake, in a single report, broadcast very early one morning, should be able to precipitate such a cataclysm.

In the wake of Hutton, the BBC set up the Neil committee. Ron Neil is a former editor of BBC News and Current Affairs, with a formidable record of achievement as a journalist.

Since the Neil report was made public six months ago, BBC management has begun a major programme of change.

Two areas in particular have received close attention. The first is journalist training.

The Neil report had many recommendations to make in this area. The most eye-catching was the recommendation to set up a BBC College of Journalism. The central principle will be that all BBC journalists will be guaranteed continued professional training every year throughout their career - and that includes senior editors.

This is a recognition that editors, who play a crucial role in the highly decentralised BBC system, have not always received the support they need in learning the professional skills needed to handle difficult and sensitive editorial issues.

These include ensuring that star presenters embody the BBC's core values just as much as junior researchers.

The BBC College of Journalism won't mean a new building built at licence payers' expense on some leafy campus. There will be many different ways of delivering the new training - including distance learning.

The BBC already has a new online interactive training programme on editorial policy. It takes users through a series of challenging editorial dilemmas based on real examples from BBC output. The programme is engaging, thought-provoking and enlightening.

There's also a series of workshops to tease out the full implications of Hutton and Neil. They cover things like handling exclusives and the right way to use sources.

So the BBC is making headway in ensuring its journalists are properly and professionally trained - and this training is refreshed throughout their careers.

The second area highlighted in the Neil Report where progress is being made is accountability. The complaints handling system across the BBC has been changed to make it speedier, fairer and more accountable.

You may also have seen Ray Snoddy's NewsWatch programme on News 24. This is the first time the BBC has ever had a feedback programme solely dedicated to news and current affairs output.

There's now also a valuable Notes and Corrections section of the NewsWatch website. So if the BBC gets things wrong, there's now a place where corrections can rapidly be posted.

These are positive changes. But the hardest kind of change to make in any organisation is culture change. And the BBC's culture of handling complaints has not always been appropriate.

The instinctive response to a complaint has not always been: "Let's find out if there is anything in this." Rather, it has tended to be: "We're the BBC, we don't get things wrong, so you must be mistaken."

But of course from time to time the BBC does get things wrong. The BBC is the product of human endeavour with all the fallibilities that that implies. The BBC has to acknowledge this. It has to turn itself into and organisation open to external challenge, not defensive about it.

In the words of the Neil Report, it has to: "Develop a system and a culture that encourages fast clarification and unambiguous correction."

Everyone at the top of the BBC signs up to that principle. But the BBC has a highly decentralised editorial structure and it has taken time to get this declared openness to external challenge properly into the editorial bloodstream.

Three months ago, a BBC correspondent in the Middle East - a good correspondent with a strong record - made an inappropriately personal remark about the death of Yasser Arafat in an edition of From Our Own Correspondent.

The BBC received many complaints. Its first response was the old one - a public statement that defended the output come what may. That was the wrong response - it reflected the instincts of the old culture.

When the new Director of News, Helen Boaden, heard the statement she was surprised. It did not reflect her expressed view about the piece or that of her senior team.

So she changed it - to make clear that aspects of the broadcast had been misjudged. And knowing that would raise eyebrows, she went on Radio 4's Feedback programme to explain herself. It was time, she said, for BBC News to have an adult relationship with its audience. That was in October.

In December BBC World was the victim of a spectacular - if rather cruel - hoax. As a result, some BBC news outlets broadcast an inaccurate story about compensation for the victims of the Bhopal Disaster.

This time the response was different. Two things happened. The first was an unambiguous correction - transmitted as soon as the hoax was revealed.

The second was that an immediate high-level investigation was launched - to ensure that the BBC learns from the mistake.

This was not, after all, just a matter of a BBC journalist being taken in by a cleverly-designed fake website - although that was part of the problem.

It was also a case of BBC journalists fixing an interview apparently without asking some basic questions, such as what the interviewee might say, and then checking it out in advance.

But, given that the hoax had worked, the BBC response was the right one: speedy, frank, open, based on the acknowledgement that mistakes do happen and that the important thing is to hold your hand up and then ensure that the right lessons are learned.

What this boils down to is trust. If audiences have the confidence that the BBC really is open to external challenge, and that when it gets things wrong it will act honestly and transparently, then audiences will continue to place their trust in BBC journalism as they have done for more than three quarters of a century.

It's encouraging to note that in survey after survey - most recently a poll in last week's UK Press Gazette - the BBC remains Britain's most trusted source of news.

The quality that underpins trust in BBC journalism is impartiality. It's fashionable in some quarters to be a bit patronising about the idea of impartiality. It's a fantasy. It can't be achieved. Why try? Bias is inevitable. Why not be honest about our biases and leave it to the market to decide which set of avowedly partisan news bulletins should win the battle for audiences?

I passionately and fundamentally disagree. Of course individuals have opinions. But it is possible to neutralise individual bias through a self-critical and dispassionately professional approach.

And it is possible to achieve a journalism that is fair, open-minded and shows a respect for truth.

Some would say that to search for truth is naïve. There is no truth, only competing perspectives. But here too, I disagree. It is possible to search for an objective truth on which reasonable people can agree - indeed that search is central to the practice of serious journalism.

Let others abandon that search if they wish. It is not the road the BBC will travel. The BBC must not take its agenda from others.

That means taking great care not to accept uncritically the way issues are framed by parts of the media that are avowedly partisan.

But it also means not slipping into the knee-jerk cynicism that dismisses every statement from every politician as, by definition, a lie.

Scepticism is a necessary and vital part of the journalist's toolkit. But when scepticism becomes cynicism it can close off thought and block the search for truth.

The BBC must have the strength, the confidence, the professionalism, the critical self-awareness, the openness to challenge, and the independence to be genuinely impartial.

As Governors we take a particular interest in this aspect of the BBC's news services.

Overall perceptions of impartiality are tracked through independent research for us throughout the year.

In addition, every six months or so the Governors focus on some salient issue in the news and commission a hard look at whether or not the BBC is living up to its billing.

The latest area under the microscope is the highly contentious one of coverage of the European Union.

In the recent past, these inquiries have been managed in-house. But that's clearly problematical - the management judging its own performance.

So this time we went outside the management chain, commissioned an independent consultant who called in independent experts.

As part of the study, an independent panel, chaired by the unimpeachably impartial former Cabinet Secretary, Lord Wilson, has spent the last couple of months doing an intensive review of BBC news coverage of the EU.

Their report - with recommendations - will come to the Governors in the next few days.

We haven't yet had a chance to discuss this report, so it would be wrong for me to pre-empt our decisions. But I can say this: we will publish the report in full - and we will make sure that its recommendations are given serious consideration by management.

The trust that is built by delivering impartial news is central to the BBC continuing to perform one of its key public purposes - some would say its most important public purpose - supporting informed citizenship.

The BBC mission here is becoming increasingly important as the market for news and information changes, and the pressures mount to abandon serious and thoughtful news coverage.

As with every other genre in the digital universe, news providers are beset by increased competition, declining audiences and fragmenting revenues.

One result is that serious news values are coming under increasing strain.

The BBC may indeed have unwittingly contributed to this by the emphasis on audience accessibility in news in recent years.

This may have created a tension - on the one hand the expectation that editors should deliver the traditional, serious BBC news agenda; on the other, a perceived pressure on editors to win audiences - with the result that a certain confusion may have taken root about which was the right road to follow.

But of course it's not a case of one or the other: of serious journalism or serious ratings. It is a counsel of despair to believe that serious journalism is incapable of being popular journalism.

Hugh Cudlipp would have characterised it as a terrible failure of editorial nerve.

In his memoirs Cudlipp spelt out his philosophy: "What newspapers were about, to me," he wrote, "was controversy. Stimulating thought. Destroying the taboos. Taking on complicated subjects like economics, national health and production, and explaining them in language all could understand.

"The paper worthwhile to me was an Open University, and this meant presenting the news in a sensational manner in the new days of mass readership and democratic responsibility."

Well, you might quibble with the odd word such as "sensational" but this is not a bad mission statement for a public service news provider:

Stimulating thought;

Explaining complicated subjects in language all can understand;

Underpinning democratic responsibility.

But it's a really hard trick to pull off.

One of the key challenges for BBC journalists is how to engage the audience in stories that matter.

One of the stated aspirations of BBC News is "making the important interesting". It's a really good motto. It should be carved in letters of gold above the entrance to every BBC newsroom: "Make the important interesting."

Easy to say, mind you. Hard to deliver. It takes high levels of creativity and craft skills. It takes innovative formats, strong story-telling, powerful narratives, incisive judgment, developed specialisms, unforgettable pictures and laser-precision writing.

It takes the best journalists and the best production talent there is.

It takes serious and sustained investment in specialist journalists and a proper network of foreign bureaux.

The BBC has those journalists, and it has that production talent, it has that investment, and it has an unmatched portfolio of outlets across radio, television and the internet to showcase the results.

On Boxing Day it was all put to the test. The Indonesian earthquake and the tsunami that followed posed almost impossible logistical challenges.

Contrary to what you may have read in some newspapers, the BBC was ahead of the game because, unlike many of its competitors, it already had people on the ground in its foreign bureaux close to where the news was breaking.

These were journalists who had real knowledge and expertise in reporting that part of the world.

The BBC was carrying live reports from Indonesia well before some of its competitors had even spotted that the story had broken.

It was Rachel Harvey, the BBC's correspondent in Jakarta, who delivered those live reports. She knows, and knows well, the area where the earthquake struck. That local knowledge gave her despatches an unmatched edge and authority.

But the BBC had many more people in Asia on Boxing Day ready to respond - most of them already living and working in the region - in Delhi, Jakarta, Bangkok and Colombo.

That's what you can do when you marry secure funding to a commitment to cover world news in breadth as well as depth.

It means you can invest in a network of more than 40 properly staffed foreign bureaux - not just in the major news hubs of Washington, Brussels and Moscow, but right round the globe.

And because of the BBC's secure funding it doesn't face the dilemma that Cudlipp's Mirror faced when Rupert Murdoch arrived and triggered a competitive war that changed the face of British tabloid journalism.

The competition is heating up in broadcast news too. Should the BBC respond by changing its standards or softening its news agenda? Not while I'm chairman.

The BBC has a duty to set the gold standard in news reporting, in accuracy, in impartiality, in creating better understanding.

Mark Thompson, the Director-General, has recently spoken of audiences wanting the BBC to raise its game, looking to the BBC to uphold and build on what the DG called the "commanding reputations" of broadcasting.

And he made clear that nowhere was this so important as in news and current affairs, the cornerstone of the BBC.

Tessa Jowell, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, said the other day that a key part of the prescription for the BBC which she will be unveiling in her forthcoming Green Paper on charter review would be: "A BBC even more capable of achieving high benchmarks, especially in News, that the rest of the industry has to live up to."

Mark Thompson and Tessa Jowell are right. The ambition for BBC journalism must be to scale the commanding heights. That means an agenda driven by significance not sensation; by scepticism not cynicism.

It means a passion for accuracy of fact, and precision of language; a thirst for knowledge and nuance; a commitment to continue investing in difficult and challenging journalism; and an understanding that properly reflecting the complexity of the world back to Britain is as important as properly covering domestic events.

It means a journalism of high endeavour. A distinctive journalism, built on trust, impartiality and independence.

A journalism that never patronises or talks down or underestimates its audience.

A journalism founded on a serious agenda delivered in an engaging way - a journalism, in short, that really does "make the important interesting".

A journalism, too, that is not afraid to take considered risk. What do I mean by that? Well, let me illustrate it with one final story from the rich treasury of Cudlippiana.

I'll call it The Story of 'Oh'. When Cudlipp took over the Sunday Pictorial it was a weak and failing title. He had to build its reputation. He had to get it talked about as a newspaper that mattered. He had to get some scoops.

In 1938 he got wind that the Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden, was about to resign - might even have resigned - over Chamberlain's appeasement policies.

It was midnight on a Saturday in February. The first editions had already gone. The last edition was near its deadline. He had one source. But he needed confirmation. Cudlipp picked up the phone and rang Eden at home.

"I understand, Mr Eden," he said, "that you have resigned as Foreign Secretary." There was a pause. Then Eden said a single word. He said: "Oh." And that was all. It wasn't yes. It wasn't no. It wasn't a denial. It wasn't even that favourite modern escape route of the cornered minister, a non-denial denial. It was just the single word: "Oh."

Cudlipp knew he had to end the conversation quickly in case Eden asked him to withhold the news on some spurious plea of protecting the national interest. But he knew he didn't yet have enough to go with the story. So he risked one final observation.

"I realise," said Cudlipp, "that there may be further talks and the announcement will not be made until tomorrow. Apologies for disturbing you tonight and so late."

There was another pause - but still no denial. Cudlipp said goodnight, put down the phone, worked through all the clues, weighed up his decision and then he wrote the front page headline for the last edition: Eden resigns.

It was now the early hours of the morning. But Cudlipp had one last phone call to make. He rang his proprietor, Cecil King, and told him the news.

"How do we know at this ungodly hour?" asked King. "I phoned Eden at midnight," said Cudlipp airily, "and he said 'Oh'. I'll explain it all when we meet."

Cudlipp's memoirs do not record how he spent the next few hours. But you can imagine him, like any new editor with his first big scoop, holding his breath… Until, later that day, the official announcement came. Anthony Eden had resigned as Foreign Secretary.

Ladies and Gentlemen, thank you for helping me celebrate the memory of a truly great British journalist, a great editor and a great risk taker. How lucky was I to have worked for him, albeit on the back page.


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