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24 September 2014
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Roger Mosey

Head of Television News

Purposes and Principles in Public Broadcasting

Thursday 13 November 2003
Printable version

The first in a series of four public lectures held by the Centre for Ethics, Philosophy & Public Affairs on Practices, Policies and Principles, exploring issues facing those in public life and service


What I'm hoping to persuade you tonight is that the BBC has a role in our national public life, which I will argue is needed more rather than less in a digital age.

I also want to tackle some of the issues of alleged bias in news, and mark out the position where I believe we have to stand in this era of limitless broadcasting choice.

Finally I want to invite your views and respond to them because if there's one thing the BBC should stand for it's listening to our audiences and responding to their views.

I would expect nothing less than vigorous feedback from an audience at St Andrew's University.

I am 45 years old. On all those annoying market research questionnaires I've just moved into the category 45-54, which - believe me - gives a real sense of the passing of time.

But I am of a generation which can, just about, remember two-channel TV.

When I was very small we had BBC Television and - in my part of Yorkshire - Granada and ABC sharing the ITV button.

During my early childhood there was the launch of BBC TWO; but it wasn't until I'd been through university and started working that we got the fourth tv channel - Channel 4 which launched in 1982.

It has only been in the past decade that we have seen the spread of multichannel television: cable, satellite and now Freeview, bringing dozens or hundreds of channels into people's homes.

The Internet, and the spread of Broadband, is also fuelling the explosion of choice.

Now, it is possible to overstate the effect on people's lives: almost half the population still don't have multichannel TV, and even those who do sometimes add only a few channels to their viewing portfolio.

But there have been massive changes to the broadcasting market, with companies having to come to terms with the digital world; and the fantastic developments in technology - interactivity on television, 3G phones, MP3 players, I-Macs or whatever - mean we know that the pace of change will continue.

The expectation has to be that you will be able to watch or listen to what you want, when you want, wherever you are.

It also means that we're living in a world with few boundaries, where content and information can zap around the continents instantly.

In the two-channel world of my childhood you could see the dim outline of this possibility: we watched our black and white screens as we saw the first satellite reports, the first international hook-ups and the first live broadcast from the Moon.

I wouldn't want to ascribe thoughts to a little boy in the 1960s, but my recollection is that all this seemed to be about noble purposes: to use technology to share information and understanding, to enhance television as the medium which educated as well as entertained.

I grew up with the BBC: Blue Peter was my favourite children's programme, and in the 70s Monty Python were my comedy heroes - but I also watched Raymond Baxter on Tomorrow's World, Jacob Bronowski on The Ascent of Man and I listened to pioneering radio current affairs programmes like The World At One.

Now, you might have assumed that a market which can support hundreds of channels would remove the need for the BBC.

The BBC could be seen, if you were so minded, as the outmoded product of the nanny state broadcasting era: the paternalistic voice of the age of monopoly or duopoly.

But surely these days: anyone can do news? Anyone can do great British drama? Anyone can make strong regional current affairs programmes?

Well, there is no sign of it being done on the scale the BBC can achieve; and the BBC is still unchallenged as a patron of the arts, the place where the nation comes to debate its big issues or even as a testbed for new comedy.

That's partly, I think, because we face a genuine disappointment.

The brilliance of the technology of the digital age is not matched by the content which it spreads.

Twenty years ago we would have been surprised that so many of the applications of the Internet are to distribute pornography, and even out-and-out libertarians might be a touch disconcerted that video phones appeal to some people as a means of distributing pictures of their (or other people's) bottoms rather than as devices for downloading the latest business news.

The picture isn't hugely more encouraging in television.

I pay unalloyed tribute to Sky Sports for its range of sport and the way they revolutionised its coverage; we should recognise that Sky pioneered 24-hour news in the UK; and I like the fact that I can get movies on demand at home.

But if you zap around even the more generalist channels on the Sky platform at a certain time of night, some common themes emerge.

Sin Cities and Temptation Islands jostle with The Villa Uncut - and a whole channel Men and Motors which besmirches the Granada name.

What is more worrying is the way this has affected traditional broadcasters.

ITV used to be a public service broadcaster with high-profile current affairs shows like This Week and World In Action and documentary series like Survival and Disappearing World.

Well, it did disappear; and now only the occasional ghost flickers on the edge of the schedule.

Some of what ITV does is, of course, good and right for the audience: there is enjoyable drama, I like Pop Idol when I catch it - and Coronation Street is a rattling good soap.

Overall, there's some hope the channel is pulling back from the brink; but it was ITV1 and ITV2 which broadcast a show a year or so back called Wudja? Cudja? paying cash rewards for behaviour which was either unpleasant or anti-social.

A man was paid £1,000 to be stripped to his underwear and tied to a lamp-post before being pelted with fruit. Then worms were tipped over him.

In another segment, a host who achieved nerve-tingling levels of awfulness ran round a market town trying to persuade shoppers to show her their bare bottoms.

Even Channel 4 joined in the trend towards pointless smut: it was refreshing the other day to hear Mark Thompson, the Chief Executive of Channel 4, say he wanted a change.

"We have fewer than half the numbers of programmes with a strong sexual theme than a year ago," he said.

"A little bit in the past sometimes Channel 4 has been guilty of slightly cynical choices, like buying Temptation Island from Sky. That's not what Channel 4 was put on earth to do."

However, I wonder what a recent new programme - Dirty Sanchez, bought from MTV - suggests about Channel 4's mission on earth.

I quote from the Channel 4 website:
Three mad mates from the Welsh valleys and one warped Londoner, all united by a total disregard for their own personal safety and a burning desire to destroy the boundaries of taste and decency.
Not only will you see the team embarking upon foolhardy ventures such as rolling in stinging nettles, playing naked paintball, lying on beds of drawing pins, drinking their own urine, challenging professional wrestlers and downing four litres of water only to deny themselves lavatory relief - but, rather worryingly, you'll also be taken inside their deranged heads.
And if you've ever wondered why someone thinks it's a good idea to nail their genitals to a piece of wood, Dirty Sanchez will reveal all!

The fact is there is a lot of it around. I would include in 'it' programmes which say they're about reality but which concentrate on sex, drinking and yobbishness.

There are boobs and bums in abundance, with varying levels of pretence at a real narrative: so the programme Club Reps is a good example, with the odd story about a missing passport to occupy the time before we get down the club at night and the birds get their kit off while the lads are vomiting into the hedge out the back.

We're then mildly surprised as a nation when the Greek authorities take action against British anti-social behaviour, and television producers say it was nothing to do with them - honest.

Well, "baloney" is the kind word to use about that sort of disingenousness.

You may say: if people want to watch this stuff after the pub, why shouldn't they?

And I do genuinely welcome the freedom of choice which the digital age has brought us: choice inevitably means there are things some people don't like.

But it matters because we are in danger of leading the world at putting this sort of thing on mass-market television.

These formats and programmes exist across the world but usually on minority cable channels.

Here they're on ITV1 or 2, or Sky One: so we're in the uncomfortable position that a nation with a dodgy record on hooliganism and loutish behaviour is bringing just that onto our TV screens.

It matters, too, because television is becoming an agent provocateur.

I'm intrigued to know how the producers who give money to people to take their clothes off outside Sainsbury's would explain to their kids why flashers are a bad thing.

I also suspect the easily-led are more likely to behave badly if a camera crew's around and they may get on television.

Some of those who've done so have, indeed, said they did just that and regretted it once they got back from sunny climes with cheap booze.

And that points to another factor which should make us queasy.

A lot of this is middle-class producers and commissioners who use less-educated and less-sophisticated 'real people' (the phrase drips with condescension) to make bad television programmes in the hope of getting ratings.

The cocktail is poisonous all the way through: people are encouraged literally to let it all hang out in a way that looks unappealing even to them.

But the same material works its way insidiously into the national consciousness as 'typical' or 'natural' behaviour.

Now, the BBC will make a series of arguments in the next year or so about why its Royal Charter should be renewed.

But it seems clear to me that one of them should be that we should never do the Dirty Sanchez or similar genres of programming ourselves; and our existence means there are flood-defences against it becoming the norm across the TV spectrum.

That's the negative way of putting it, but the positive way is that the BBC should still be an avowed standard-setter - still a place where there is an expectation of quality, and the hope that we might broaden people's horizons and stretch their imagination.

As it happens, there is plenty of proof of that this week on BBC ONE which is both Britain's most popular channel and the place where there is the richest mix of television.

Last Saturday at 9 o'clock we showed the Festival of Remembrance.

Last Sunday at 9 o'clock we broadcast a special edition of Panorama about war reporting.

On Monday at 9 o'clock: Holy Cross, about a community riven by sectarianism in Northern Ireland.

On BBC TWO on Saturday evening, The Big Read - the latest multimedia project after the brilliant Restoration.

I would be the first to concede that not every programme on the BBC reaches these peaks, and there's the occasional show we wish we hadn't commissioned; but it is also undeniable that no other broadcasting organisation is currently offering what we do.

The people who argue the market can provide all this - and BBC Scotland and Radio 4 and BBC Local Radio and BBC Online and a multitude of other services - should explain why it is not doing so now.

We show day in day out the reality of a commitment to public service broadcasting, while our enemies want to throw it all away in the unproven hope that somehow someone somewhere might concede Greece Uncovered isn't really a documentary programme and commission something that is instead.

I mentioned Scotland there, and it's worth underlining that our commitment is to high quality production across the United Kingdom.

We make British programmes in massive numbers, using the talents of the people of these islands; but we also do more for Scotland (and Wales, and Northern Ireland) than anyone else.

It's very hard these days to come to Scotland without getting into a conversation about the cost of the new Parliament building, and it's evident that it will take some time for devolved government to win all hearts and minds.

But the BBC's commitment to defining Scottishness for the 21st century - to recording its events and celebrating its culture - is absolute, whatever the political climate of the day.

I want to talk now in more detail about our role as a provider of news.

I should say here first I'm not arguing that only the BBC is capable of doing news in the digital age: Sky and ITN are fully-fledged competitors.

But in the case of Sky News I wouldn't want to mortgage the future of British television news provision on something partly owned by Rupert Murdoch; and ITV has already shown itself unfit to be a guardian of news by its disastrous handling of News at Ten and its cavalier treatment of the excellent ITN brand.

More widely in the market we see the same gap as in other genres: nobody else is doing the Today programme or Panorama or the Ten O'Clock News or the news programming on Radio Five Live or services like News Online.

But this role brings responsibilities.

BBC News is by far the most-watched and most-listened to news provider in the United Kingdom, and it therefore has to be committed to serving its audiences with independent, impartial and honest journalism.

This job is, unquestionably, made harder by the noise of all the rest of the modern media.

You only have to look at recent days to see how unsubstantiated and flimsy rumours about the Prince of Wales become the currency of international tabloids and websites; and the joy of the technology which brings us live pictures from across the globe instantaneously is also its curse as lies and disinformation spread at the same speed.

I would never want to go back to the era in which working men doffed their hats at the mention of The King; but it cannot be of benefit to our public life that one of our biggest selling newspapers prints the screaming headline "Is Charles bisexual?" - only to say within the small print that the answer is an unequivocal "no".

Amid all this hubbub, the BBC's role is to be a voice of calm.

In recent years we have unashamedly modernised some of the things we do, including our news provision, because it can't be the case that only the broadcasting style of the 1950s is appropriate for the BBC.

But what we have to ensure is that our values underpin all our journalism in whatever voice it speaks, whether it's on 1Xtra or BBC TWO - and the right of our audience to trust what we say, whenever they see or hear the letters "BBC", is absolute.

At this point a number of thoughts may be swimming through your heads. Are we half-way through, at least? Answer, yes.

But there may be some names: Lord Hutton, or Andrew Gilligan.

There may be some recent newspaper articles: Beebwatch in the Daily Telegraph or pieces in The Sunday Times criticising our journalism or arguing for the end of the licence fee.

There could even be some comments from politicians about our bias against them or areas where we haven't done as well as we could.

Now, in common with the rest of the BBC, I'm not able to comment on the Hutton Inquiry until it comes to its conclusions.

But we've already admitted there are some things we could have done better; and the right way to see criticism is as a spur in continuing to seek excellence.

It has probably been true in the past that we have been defensive on occasion about criticism, not least because our critics often have axes of their own to grind.

But the trick for us in the future is to respond to feedback more effectively: to use it to make us better, and to enlist the support of our audiences to deliver services of which they and the nation can be proud.

I therefore want to tackle head-on the question "Is BBC News biased?" - mainly because that's the most damaging accusation made by our opponents.

I could take the easy route here and say we're criticised from left and from right, and (for instance) from Palestinians and from Israelis - which has traditionally allowed us to say that we must be do something ok round about the middle.

But, as I'll go on to argue, I don't think a position in the soggy middle of everything is necessarily the right place to be.

But let's knock down the easiest target.

I do not believe the BBC is politically biased. This is an organisation made up of around 40,000 people - and the idea that they could all be made to follow a single political line is obviously nonsensical.

When I worked for the Today programme, my deputy editor went off to be head of communications at Conservative Central Office; another deputy editor was a former Labour Party researcher; and one of the senior producers became a press office for Paddy Ashdown.

We recently had a Newsnight output editor who was a former SNP parliamentary candidate.

Across the BBC there are people of all parties and none.

Those who are at the sharp end of journalism see it as their role to challenge politicians in the interests of the voters, and I have never come across anyone who wanted to pull a punch.

Even if they did, their colleagues wouldn't let them.

This isn't just my view about political impartiality: it's supported by years of research in which an overwhelming majority of the population (usually around 80%) think the BBC is fair.

An interesting footnote is that, of the minority who do think we're biased, this was interpreted during years of Conservative Government to be a bias towards the Tories; and now under a Labour Government it's seen as a bias towards the Labour Party.

This raises the question, then, of whether we edge towards being a tool of Government.

As I said, I can't comment on the Hutton Inquiry; but I'd suggest, ever so gently, that events of this year make it unlikely that the Government sees the BBC as being under its control - and nor does the BBC see its central function as being to secure the re-election of whoever happens to be in power.

This has been true across the decades. The Thatcher Government, for instance, was cross about a programme called Real Lives which interviewed community leaders in Northern Ireland; it tried to ban a radio series - My Country Right or Wrong - about the security services; and it vigorously criticised our news coverage of events like the Libyan bombing.

There has always been a tension between Whitehall and Broadcasting House, albeit with the common thread that successive governments have seen the value of the BBC to the country and have recognised that its independence is a national credit - despite the irritation it causes to them.

And so to what is rather more the charge of the moment.

The BBC, according to some of our critics, pursues a liberal agenda.

Now here, I think, we need to identify three things: the overall purpose of the BBC; the nature of the organisation; and the function of BBC News, which I'm going to detach from the other two things.

As I said, we shall hear a lot about the purposes of the BBC in the next year; but my personal view is that we should be open about wanting to make Britain a better place - a country which appreciates the arts, which has opportunities for lifelong learning, which nurtures an interest in our democracy.

The organisation itself, meanwhile, is 'liberal' in the classic sense in that it is a lively, disputatious, free-thinking place where we put an ever greater emphasis on creativity and where we encourage our staff to celebrate their diversity.

This is one of the reasons why it could never follow a political line: managing in the BBC does have a refreshing element of trying to herd cats.

But having said that we should be unambiguous that it is not an aim to pursue a liberal agenda in our News coverage or indeed in any of our output.

I should perhaps try to define what our critics mean by a liberal agenda.

If I read the Daily Telegraph correctly, it would include attitudes such as support for abortion; opposition to the death penalty; belief in a ban on fox hunting; a yearning for the Euro; advocacy of devolution; and 'inclusive' perspectives on topics like asylum and gay rights.

You can see in that list that there are people in all political parties who would buy that agenda: the left of the Tory Party, and swathes of the Lib Dems, Labour and the SNP.

But I can say at the start that it doesn't include every member of the BBC.

A couple of times in recent years we've had a straw poll in my office to check the thesis, and in one of them a clear majority of my immediate team were against the Euro while they split 6:5 against the death penalty.

But the charge is that our journalism does reflect these underlying attitudes.

I sincerely hope it doesn't.

Impartiality is indivisible, and where there is genuine debate within the UK we should reflect it fairly without any underpinning of an attitude of our own.

The BBC should not be pro- or anti-Euro. We should recognise that there are strong cases for and against fox hunting, both honestly held.

It is a fact of our national life that a majority of voters would like to bring back the death penalty while an overwhelming majority of the people they elect don't want to. This doesn't make the voters wrong and the politicians right - or vice versa.

Impartiality is about recognising these challenges and putting the facts as clearly as possible.

The bottom line is this. It is a legitimate aspiration of the BBC to make Britain a better place.

But it cannot do this by reflecting through its journalism or factual programming a world which liberals or anyone else wishes would exist: rather, it has to be clear-sighted about the truth and about reality.

News is not a function of social engineering.

Now, I did raise some of these issues in an interview recently in The Independent.

It's because I believe we should engage in the debate and listen fairly to the criticisms made of us.

I also think in my job I need to be accountable for what we do right and what we get wrong.

So I said, for instance, that I thought we were slow to recognise the strength of feeling in the country about asylum - and during the 2001 election campaign it did not figure as much as it probably should have done as a broadcast journalism issue.

This is not, emphatically not, a problem only for the BBC; but there was a chattering class view that fears about asylum were either completely irrational or were engendered by the Daily Mail or the BNP.

As time has passed, this opinion looks ever more unlikely; and we have tried in our programming to make sure that the voices of middle Britain have been heard on this issue.

There was an excellent film on the Politics Show which revealed the worries in black and Asian communities about the damage to race relations caused by record numbers of asylum seekers; on Newsnight we brought ordinary voters in Gateshead face-to-face with the Prime Minister to put their concerns about the issue direct to him; and we examined all the issues in an Asylum Night on BBC ONE in which there was a particularly robust Panorama which challenged what the Telegraph would see as the liberal agenda.

That was an example of the way we learned from what I concede was a weakness in our journalism (and in Sky's and ITN's, I suspect) a couple of years ago.

I also made the point that there is a risk across all journalism that we're driven by a consensus - not necessarily liberal, but even worse: a slab of conventional wisdom which deadens our journalistic instincts.

I used as an example détente in the 1980s, where most of the chattering classes favoured dialogue with the Soviet Union and were uncomfortable with the hardline attitudes of President Reagan and Mrs Thatcher.

History suggests, of course, that the strategy of conceding little and driving the Soviet Union into arms-fuelled bankruptcy was an effective one.

It was arguably the hard line rather than the soft one which delivered millions of people from the tyranny of communism.

And so today we have to be fair and impartial about President George W Bush, despite his unpopularity in this country and in most of the world.

The Neo-conservative agenda may be right, it may be wrong: I honestly have no conclusions.

But I stand by what I said in The Independent: the editorial assumption cannot be that President Bush is automatically wrong in everything he does.

It's worth stressing here that I don't think we do fall into this trap in the BBC, thanks to our excellent correspondents in Washington and good editors here.

It is, however, a risk of journalism in general that it picks up a popular mood and turns in lazy pieces which make partisans feel warm and cosy - all comfort, in other words, and no challenge.

Let me be explicit about one other thing too.

In areas where there might be a gentle tug of the liberal agenda, the answer is not to substitute a conservative agenda or any other kind of agenda.

The point for the BBC is that it should have no agenda in its reporting.

That is why I described the Daily Telegraph's Beebwatch feature - which scrutinised our journalism for liberal/lefty stuff - as "mean-spirited".

In trying to discourage us from being partisan, which is a laudable aim, it was unabashedly partisan itself.

Its criticism only came from the right, when actually there can sometimes be equally valid criticism from the left.

(If you look back, Tony Benn would argue the BBC has never exactly followed his agenda either).

As an illustration of the Telegraph problem, going back a little further this year, the paper wrote an editorial on April 12th to mark the end of the war in Iraq:

"The BBC", it said, "has had a terrible war. Despite the undoubted courage of many of its correspondents, it has failed in its task, and it has failed in many ways. The first is bias. Throughout the conflict and before it, the BBC gave disproportionate coverage to opponents of the war."

I won't read the rest of the editorial, though one later charge against us was that we were implying the Americans were still in trouble in Iraq.

But we now know that that accusation number one is untrue.

Academic research by the Cardiff School of Journalism has shown that BBC News was broadly in line with its competitors in the amount of airtime given to those for and against the war, and if anything all of us defaulted too much to pro-government speakers or sources of information.

In other words, what the Telegraph was trying to encourage us to do was not move in what is now revealed to be the correct direction: to ensure that we reinforced scepticism about some of the pro-war arguments.

It was castigating us for not being as partisan as the Telegraph, which had an unshamed and unabashed pro-war agenda.

That is, of course, the Telegraph's right and it's a newspaper I admire; but it cannot be the answer for the BBC.

(I should note, by the way, that the new editor of the Telegraph has just dropped Beebwatch - though they say they'll still be watching the issues it raised; as, of course, will we).

So let me finally pull one or two thoughts together.

Our journalism will only be distinctive in the future if it remains absolutely impartial.

No BBC agenda, no axes to grind, no wishful thinking: just facts, fair analysis and an understanding of the needs of our audience amid the din of a multichannel hi-tech world.

But if this sounds like an austere diet for our news coverage, it feeds into an organisation as a whole which still has the power and the will to shape this country for the better - to use broadcasting as something which liberates, something which opens new perspectives.

Television, in particular, is at its best the greatest medium.

In the two-channel world which I watched in Bradford in the 1960s I saw a glimpse of the future: both ours as a nation, and mine as the first generation in my family to go to university - and to end up working for the BBC, which wasn't anything my grandparents and their families, who were carpenters or train drivers or farmers, would ever have contemplated.

So we have a choice before us now: just more stuff, more Wudja Cudja, more tittle-tattle about royals, more noise - less understanding.

Or we can say the BBC is something not just worth preserving, but something we can make better still.


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