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24 September 2014
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Roger Mosey

Head of Television News

Agenda Setting 2003: Mass Media and Public Opinion

11 September 2003
Printable version

Speech given at a Media Tenor Institute Conference in Bonn.

Thank you 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.

He and 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.

The Hutton 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.

So today 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.

There is a passage I found rather striking in a recently published book by Will Wyatt, the former managing director of BBC Television.

He tells 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 affairs.

This is what he said to the man, Brian Wenham, who made the suggestion.

"I 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.

"Then 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.

"Your kind offer invites me to be responsible for both areas. No thanks."

I cite 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.

Rather, it shows that controversy is nothing new for the BBC.

There are 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.

Real Lives in the 1980s fell foul of a Conservative government, as did the BBC's reporting of the Libya bombing.

The 1990s began with a Conservative Party Conference shouting down a minister who tried to say a good word for the BBC.

You may have heard that the current Labour government has had its complaints, too.

But this points to one of the foundation stones of the BBC. It is independent of all political parties and governments.

We know 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 coverage.

It is not our function to oppose legitimate governments, but it is equally not our role to get a particular set of politicians elected.

Our commitment is to democracy itself, and to the people of the United Kingdom.

They would 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.

This isn't to say that the BBC is automatically right in what it does.

Any human organisation is fallible, and you shouldn't assume broadcasters are always right any more than that politicians are always wrong.

I've always 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.

But what 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.

That's accompanied by the changes in our society: particularly the collapse of deference and the erosion of trust in all institutions.

I don't 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.

A fact, 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 this world.

Now, there 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 us.

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.

The broadcasting 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.

The arrival 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.

For public 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.

We should strive to represent the truth: to be impartial and honest as well as independent.

But that 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.

Spin is 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.

We know 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 and analysis.

Audiences these days aren't content to know simply that something has happened; they want to know why.

The BBC will therefore continue to support investigative journalism, and reporting which shines a light into the darkness.

Our current affairs programme Panorama has invested time and money investigating the alleged involvement of British security forces in Loyalist killings in Northern Ireland.

It also tracked down the Republican terrorists who killed so many people in Omagh.

Panorama's range means it has also uncovered corruption in horse-racing and fiddling in National Health Service statistics.

Each and 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.

This is 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.

We will 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.

This opinion 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.

Well, under the management of Richard Sambrook and his team BBC News has no intention of playing to the lowest common denominator.

But I'm 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.

The people who did this were not beholden to the status quo, and nor should we be in the future.

We have to change with our audiences: listening to their needs, but also seeking out their highest aspirations.

That way 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.

These are 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.

Crucially, at key moments we brought all our services together to give critical mass to events – some of which we ourselves generated.

For instance, 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.

This gave 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.

Throughout 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.

But I 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.

The initial 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.

I would 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 highly.

BBC News was the most-watched service for war coverage, and it was most trusted by the audience.

But the war was used by our political and commercial opponents as another stick with which to beat us.

There was 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.

I saw 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 patriotic story.

You certainly did not find an equivalent of the BBC's Iraq Day on Fox News or Sky News - or even on NBC, CBS and ABC.

It was also depressing to find politicians attacking our correspondents in Baghdad, and indulging in the cheap smear that we had become the Baghdad Broadcasting Corporation.

When we 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 war.

Now you 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.

Lord Black of Crossharbour owns The Daily Telegraph, and he wrote this letter to his own newspaper:

"The 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.

"It 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."

We should 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.

These views were quoted approvingly – and indeed, expanded upon – by The Wall Street Journal and are now spreading on loopy websites around the world.

What Lord 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.

It's important 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.

But we believe in plurality. We support choice and freedom, and we do not argue that our rivals should be shut down or cut back.

The BBC's view of the world includes Lord Black and the Wall Street Journal. Their view of the world has no recognisable BBC.

What we argue is that Britain is the better for our existence, and those benefits are apparent to people around the world who use our services.

We are 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.

So, to 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.

Accountability to the people means not letting them down, and maintaining a culture in which they trust us.

In the Iraq war we achieved that: more than 90% of the population got key information from us, and they believed it.

In these times of scepticism and doubt, the BBC has roots which go deep into the traditions and the communities of our islands.

We will, I promise, never voluntarily or carelessly abandon that heritage.


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