Agenda Setting 2003: Mass Media and Public Opinion
given at a Media Tenor Institute Conference in Bonn.
for the invitation to address this conference. Richard Sambrook is,
I know, sorry not to have made it to Bonn, but I'm delighted to have
been invited to take his place.
I and the rest of the BBC are also not able, I'm afraid, to comment
on the proceedings which have been dominating the British media and
have been reported elsewhere in recent weeks.
Inquiry into the death of David Kelly will report in due course, and
both the BBC and the government have decided not to talk about the evidence
until Lord Hutton reaches his findings.
I'll be talking about general principles: about public service broadcasting
in 2003, and about the BBC's approach to the great issues of –
literally – war and peace.
is a passage I found rather striking in a recently published book by
Will Wyatt, the former managing director of BBC Television.
how he was approached in the 1980s with the offer of a new post bringing
together two big BBC departments: to become controller of news and current
what he said to the man, Brian Wenham, who made the suggestion.
have thought about what has happened to heads of current affairs. There
was John Grist, who took the rap for Yesterday's Men and was sent to
the English Regions. You took a public rubbishing from the Annan report.
John Gau was tarred with the Carrickmore incident, punished by being
denied the controllership of BBC ONE and then parachuted out. Chris
Capron is exhausted and wants out.
there is the news. Derrick Amoore cracked under the pressure, hit the
bottle and is now exiled to Radio London. Alan Protheroe has been resurrected,
but was previously sacked from news. And Peter Woon has taken endless
flak about the superiority of ITN and cannot be long for this world.
kind offer invites me to be responsible for both areas. No thanks."
this not because Richard Sambrook, our news board colleagues and myself
have been in our jobs for a decent length of time – and so far
none of us has hit the bottle.
it shows that controversy is nothing new for the BBC.
some programmes and events through the years which generated fierce
battles with politicians: Yesterday's Men in the 1970s was about Harold
Wilson's Labour Party.
in the 1980s fell foul of a Conservative government, as did the BBC's
reporting of the Libya bombing.
began with a Conservative Party Conference shouting down a minister
who tried to say a good word for the BBC.
have heard that the current Labour government has had its complaints,
points to one of the foundation stones of the BBC. It is independent
of all political parties and governments.
this is not the case with state broadcasters in other countries of Europe,
but in Britain the editors of the news programmes don't change with
the shift in parties at elections – and we are resistant both
to external pressure and to the quiet words asking for favours or sympathetic
not our function to oppose legitimate governments, but it is equally
not our role to get a particular set of politicians elected.
is to democracy itself, and to the people of the United Kingdom.
not trust us if we were a mouthpiece of the government of the day, and
through the BBC's history there has been a proper tension between what
we say and what those in power want us to say, which lies behind the
occasional rows with politicians.
to say that the BBC is automatically right in what it does.
organisation is fallible, and you shouldn't assume broadcasters are
always right any more than that politicians are always wrong.
believed that most people who stand for election really want to make
change for the better; and at its best there can be a healthy relationship
between democratic politicians and broadcasting organisations which
share the same commitment to their country.
is testing this more than ever is the changing nature of communication:
the explosion of choice, the 24-hour culture and the impossibility of
maintaining barriers on the free spread of information.
accompanied by the changes in our society: particularly the collapse
of deference and the erosion of trust in all institutions.
think it would be useful to debate whether these are good or bad things.
The fact is that they're happening.
It is unthinkable
now that we wouldn't have 24-hour news, and Britain will never again
be the kind of country where working men doffed their hats in public
houses when wireless broadcasters mentioned the King.
or even worse a lie, can spread across the Internet and around the world
in a matter of seconds. Politicians and broadcasters have to adapt to
is a school of thought which says this is an environment in which public
service broadcasting will become ever less relevant. It will never again
command the kind of market share – indeed the monopoly –
it had in the past. It
is rooted, say our critics, in an old-fashioned paternalist world; and
these days the market can provide.
As it happens,
I am rather keen on what markets can deliver: I subscribe to Mr Rupert
Murdoch's Sky Television service, which brings us hundreds of channels
by satellite. I enjoy the extra choice which Sky and others have brought
But I wouldn't
relish a world in which we only had Mr Murdoch's platforms and products,
and I don't believe the health of all the democracies of Europe can
be guaranteed by multinational conglomerates.
ecology of the United States is a warning to us all: dominated by a
handful of companies, with an ever more homogenous product and ever
less reflection of local sensibilities.
of Fox News was, in my view, welcome in its own right; but as time goes
by it increasingly risks contaminating the whole broadcast news market
with its gung-ho brand of conservatism and its instinct for waving the
flag first and asking questions later.
service broadcasters and for the BBC, it seems to me that one of our
principal functions now is to be a trusted guide through the maelstrom
of the modern media.
strive to represent the truth: to be impartial and honest as well as
does mean more than just passively relaying information. Questioning
is important, too. For all sorts of perfectly understandable reasons,
politicians have responded to the changes in our society by adopting
techniques of media management.
the pejorative description for it, but we know that some 'key' or 'major'
announcements – by all parties – have actually been made
before, and are sometimes made half-a-dozen times in various guises.
that some statistics – chosen by all parties – are dodgy.
We know that some statements are just not true. So to become a noticeboard
for party machines is not an option if we're to serve the electorate,
and neither is it right to simply report events without providing context
these days aren't content to know simply that something has happened;
they want to know why.
will therefore continue to support investigative journalism, and reporting
which shines a light into the darkness.
affairs programme Panorama has invested time and money investigating
the alleged involvement of British security forces in Loyalist killings
in Northern Ireland.
tracked down the Republican terrorists who killed so many people in
range means it has also uncovered corruption in horse-racing and fiddling
in National Health Service statistics.
every day, programmes like Today on radio and Newsnight on television
produce reports which go beyond the headlines – and ask politicians
the questions which voters want answered.
not 'making the news': it is a service required by the public who pay
our wages and it is democratic accountability, so I salute both the
ambition of our journalists and the continuing readiness of our politicians
to appear on these programmes and open themselves to challenge.
also continue to modernise and to push the boundaries. There is in the
United Kingdom a rather tiresome debate about 'dumbing down': an argument
that any move away from the tone and intellectual level of broadcasting
in the 1950s is to betray everything we do.
is usually pushed by newspapers which devote their front-pages to large
photographs of pretty young women and free flight special offers: and
yes, The Daily Telegraph is now rather different in appearance to the
Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.
the management of Richard Sambrook and his team BBC News has no intention
of playing to the lowest common denominator.
struck looking back at the BBC's history by how it has always been led
by pioneers: from the setting up of the Corporation itself through the
world's first television service to the development of current affairs
and modern political journalism – and in the late 1990s the BBC
had the vision to set up News Online, which is still a world-leader.
who did this were not beholden to the status quo, and nor should we
be in the future.
to change with our audiences: listening to their needs, but also seeking
out their highest aspirations.
we combine the reality of the 21st century with the BBC's traditions
– and the enduring promise that we will inform and educate, as
well as entertain.
the principles on which we covered the war with Iraq. We asked questions.
We gave voice to a wide range of opinions. We reported 24 hours a day
using the latest technology: on radio, on television and Online.
at key moments we brought all our services together to give critical
mass to events – some of which we ourselves generated.
before the start of the war we constructed an Iraq Day which dominated
the peaktime schedule of BBC ONE and also involved BBC radio stations
across the country and people worldwide through our international services.
voice to supporters of the war and to opponents; it facilitated questions
being put to those in power, and it offered views from countries like
Germany and France, Pakistan and Jordan as well as the United States.
the war, as your interesting research shows, we resisted being an uncritical
purveyor of coalition facts: at times of war, trust is earned the same
way as in peace – by seeking out the truth.
do not believe we fell into the trap of thereby being the main platform
for those against the war: the arguments were tested, and as we speak
today we can see, for instance, that both military optimists and pessimists
were right to some degree.
conflict was won relatively easily, but the longer war is still in the
balance – and for the BBC to have accepted unquestioningly either
doomladen predictions or blasé confidence would have been wrong.
like to say that our coverage of the war was therefore universally applauded
for its balance … and I can say that audiences did value it extremely
was the most-watched service for war coverage, and it was most trusted
by the audience.
war was used by our political and commercial opponents as another stick
with which to beat us.
a deeply peculiar view that when an anti-war speaker appeared, they
were in tune with the beating heart of the BBC. When a pro-war speaker
was on our programmes, it was a sop and a cynical gesture. (Anti-war
voices did, of course, argue the precise opposite.)
If a guest
said the coalition would be bogged down in the desert for weeks, commentators
on the right said this somehow represented our view - whereas a guest
predicting easy victory was bravely countering BBC prejudice.
a presenter on Fox News attack the BBC for raising doubts about the
rescue of Private Jessica Lynch, without bothering to find out whether
we were right or wrong: the impudence, to him, was in challenging a
did not find an equivalent of the BBC's Iraq Day on Fox News or Sky
News - or even on NBC, CBS and ABC.
also depressing to find politicians attacking our correspondents in
Baghdad, and indulging in the cheap smear that we had become the Baghdad
see the danger that all journalists in Iraq faced, and their bravery
in covering the story, it is an insult not just to them - but to the
audiences who trusted them to present a vital part of the story of the
may say the BBC is big enough to take this, and I would largely agree
with you. But do not underestimate the passion and the venom of those
who want to see the death of public service broadcasting.
of Crossharbour owns The Daily Telegraph, and he wrote this letter to
his own newspaper:
BBC is pathologically hostile to the Government and official opposition,
most British institutions, American policy in almost every field, Israel,
moderation in Ireland, all Western religions, and most manifestations
of the free market economy.
"It benefits from an iniquitous tax, abuses its position commercially,
has shredded its formal obligation to separate comment from reporting
in all political areas, to provide variety of comment, and is poisoning
the well of public policy debate in the UK.
is a virulent culture of bias. Though its best programming in non-political
areas is distinguished, sadly it has become the greatest menace facing
the country it was founded to serve and inform."
perhaps pause for a moment on those words – "the greatest
menace facing the country". I
take it that means not just more of a threat than the trash and pornography
and misinformation which are also, sadly, part of today's media revolution,
but also more of a menace than Al-Qaeda or the IRA.
were quoted approvingly – and indeed, expanded upon – by
The Wall Street Journal and are now spreading on loopy websites around
Black says at 100 decibels is whispered in other quarters too: maybe
not that the BBC should be abolished, but at least tempered –
or cut a bit, and then perhaps just a little bit more.
to say again here that I don't think the BBC is perfect. It would be
ludicrous to say we've never made a mistake, or that everything we do
is justifiable through all eternity.
believe in plurality. We support choice and freedom, and we do not argue
that our rivals should be shut down or cut back.
view of the world includes Lord Black and the Wall Street Journal. Their
view of the world has no recognisable BBC.
argue is that Britain is the better for our existence, and those benefits
are apparent to people around the world who use our services.
one part - a crucial part, we believe - of the modern broadcasting ecology,
and a society without public service broadcasting would put at risk
what it says in the title: a genuine service for the public, accountable
to the people and funded by the people.
conclude: we face the future with a belief in our role, but with that
confidence tempered by an awareness that the forces ranged against us
are more vocal than ever – and that we ourselves have to continue
to live up to the highest standards.
to the people means not letting them down, and maintaining a culture
in which they trust us.
Iraq war we achieved that: more than 90% of the population got key information
from us, and they believed it.
times of scepticism and doubt, the BBC has roots which go deep into
the traditions and the communities of our islands.
I promise, never voluntarily or carelessly abandon that heritage.