From Global to Local - Connecting with Audiences
given to the Royal Television Society at Bafta, Piccadilly, London
Broadcast news is at
a crossroads. We've got an economic downturn forcing some hard choices
on commercial companies. Audiences, for all of us, are more and more
fickle and difficult to hold onto.
And there's a tight fight
for viewers going on, whether at Ten O'clock in the evening or on the
And then of course, there's
September the 11th. Did it mark the start of a new era of international
tension? Is there a new interest in world affairs? Or is it just a big
story that will pass quickly and we should get back to normal business?
These and other questions
mean all news broadcasters have to think hard about which direction
So where should the BBC go? Lets start with September 11th and
the current crisis:
It has emphasised something
I believe in very strongly: the importance of first-hand eyewitness
reporting. There is no substitute for a trusted reporter saying "I
went there, I saw this". And audiences - particularly the elusive
younger ones - respect that too . They recognise its integrity
The BBC has invested heavily in Newsgathering over the last ten years
and continues to do so. Putting people and resources in the field where
events happen... against the trend in most of the industry.
As Head of Newsgathering,
before this job, I spent years, building our network of bureaux and
resources to enable more original first hand reporting across all the
BBC's channels and networks.
ITN, Sky and CNN all produce some great foreign reporting as well -
I have real admiration for it and hope, for all of us, it continues.
Competition is good.
But you can't expect
a commercial broadcaster to have the range of correspondents and bureau
that the BBC does - supported by the licence fee and grant in aid. Youd
expect me to say that. But it seems to me more important than ever that
public funding supports that breadth of coverage.
To be able to say, in a crowded market (of sometimes second and third
hand information - on the internet, or from the agencies), to be able
to say that "We know because we were there and saw for ourselves"
- that's gold dust.
Since the arrival of
ITN 40 odd years ago, British TV news has enjoyed a strong reporter-led
We shouldn't take it
There is an increasingly
stark contrast between ITV's position on news and the BBC's: a contrast
which has nothing to do with the economic downturn. ITV moved and shortened
"News at Ten" - and undermined the best TV news brand in this
They now seem to use
evening news as a commodity to be shifted around the schedule, and now
ITV has cut its budget at a time when people need News more than they
have for a decade.
At the same time, the
BBC moved the news TO a fixed point at Ten O'clock - opened space in
the schedule to make BBC ONE stronger than it has been for decades.
It has stopped the decline
in our evening news audiences.
And now more people switch
from ITV and other channels at ten oclock to choose the BBC because
they recognise our commitment to national and regional news. Both performing
News is strong in the BBC at the moment because we are playing our full
part in the schedule - it's not by accident.
Of course, being publicly
funded, gives us huge advantages . And we dont take that for granted.
We 're able to call on
the expertise of the World Service in analysing Afghanistan, to have
someone like William Reeve - who we all saw almost get blown up in our
Kabul office - William, whose contacts going back many years got him
back into Kabul when no-one else could, to have current affairs journalists
like Jane Corbin with a track record over many years of reporting international
terrorism and who could turn round a Panorama on Bin Laden in days -
all of that is a genuine public service.
And those are some of
the strengths I want to use to make BBC News different; by having more
original reporting, stories you wont see on the other channels,
and by using the full depth of that expertise and experience across
all our audiences - in the UK and around the world.
Or as Henry Robinson
Luce, the founder of Time Magazine said:
"I want good editors with independent minds. I like to see independent
thinking. And if it's going the wrong way I'll straighten them out fast
I said we shouldn't take
strong reporting for granted. Government's certainly dont like it when
the going gets tough.
Baghdad, Belgrade and
(briefly) Kabul have all seen the same pressures on our reporting: suggestions
that by reporting from "behind the lines" we somehow peddle
enemy propaganda, that it's improper for us to be there.
For governments perhaps
worried about public opinion, keen to maintain support and moral authority,
all information is political.
And they don't like it
when a different point of view is expressed.
Of course they have a
perfect right to give us their views.
I understand their concerns
- but it's essential that we continue to report from as many different
places and perspectives as possible.
And if we don't, these
days, there are plenty of other places people can get information -
the internet has no boundaries.
As a journalist, I'm
glad that repressive governments can no longer shut out news they dont
As an individual, I may
disagree with the Taliban, but as a citizen I certainly want to know
what they say and what they believe. And as a broadcaster its
right to treat people as grown ups and to ensure the free-flow of information
for a democratic people.
So I have huge admiration
for all the journalists in Afghanistan - they are doing important work.
And Im proud to defend their right to do it.
Its the most dangerous
location I can remember; eight journalists killed so far. Our teams
say it's worse than Bosnia, or Chechnya or the Gulf War.
We should all take pride
in their efforts to report from some of the darkest and most dangerous
corners of the world in spite of the risks.
We talk a lot about technology,
video phones and satellites and laptops - but in the end it comes down
to people and experience.
John Simpsons liberation
of Kabul astonished many people.
What lay behind it...
was John's ten years experience of reporting Afghanistan when it wasn't
fashionable, his determination to witness first hand what was happening,
willingness to sleep in ditches and camp out week after week...
In the weeks following
September 11th of course news audiences went up. Its easy to get
people to watch when theres a major crisis. But as the horror
of September 11th fades, as it becomes a more normal foreign or diplomatic
story, how do we keep them watching?
Some people say "If
they don't want to watch, we won't cover it. We'll go back to lifestyle
news". I think that's short-sighted. A cop out. Ask the American
broadcasters now re-investing in foreign news a decade after they closed
bureau and pulled out.
For me, news has to be
rooted in the information business, not the entertainment business.
There are plenty of better places to find entertainment.
That's not a licence
to be boring of course - but we cannot duck the responsibility to make
the important, interesting.
It's not easy. In fact
it gets more difficult each year, with more and more competition for
It's an age old journalistic question of course - how to connect. When
I started out on the Merthyr Express it was how to write a story about
Merthyr that people in the next valley might want to read.
Now - same problem, bigger
scale. How to bring the world to people in a way they'll take notice
One statistic that keeps
me awake at night: Weve been talking for a long time about the
problem of getting people under 25 to watch more news... and then it
became those under 35 who weren't watching... SO we decided to see what
happened as they got older.
Well, it turns out -
they STILL dont watch .
News viewing - across
all channels - is now down 25% for the under 45s. There's a generation,
growing older which just doesn't sit down and watch news as their parents
I see that as a time
bomb. A demographic wave sweeping up through all of our audiences. If
we don't do something, in ten years it'll be the under 55's and then
the under 65's who dont watch...
And this isnt a
dilemma confined to World affairs.
Last week as you may
know we had a seminar on the future of political coverage.
The low turnout at the
election, and, lets be frank, low audiences for election programmes
demanded we think hard about how a public service broadcaster should
Our research revealed something that all of us as broadcasters share
with the politicians.
There is a new political
divide: No longer "left and right" - its now "us
and them" with "them" being politicians, the establishment
AND the broadcasters and media.
Our research says they
see politicians as dull people more interested in careers than constituents.
And they see broadcasters and journalists colluding with them - lifting
the curtain for an occasional peep at a privileged world.
Some FORTY PER CENT of
the audience feel they are outside looking in, offered few real choices.
They are not UNinterested in politics. They just dont like the
way its conducted - including on TV.
"Interested in politics,
bored by Westminster", might be their slogan.
They feel disempowered
disillusioned and disconnected.
Used to paying their
way through college, paying for utlities, paying for public services,
paying for pensions, people are comfortable with their role as consumers
- and have expectations in return.
According to the think-tank
Demos, in Britain a third of voters say environmental factors have influenced
what they buy.
One in five consumers say they reward or punish companies for social
And they are bringing
that attitude to politics.
As someone in a focus
group said to us: "They have to earn the right for us to vote.
Just because you have a voucher you dont always spend it if the
goods arent worthwhile."
No wonder it's the end
No-one in the research
found anything positive to say about MPs.
When asked what qualities they would admire in a politician they said
things like: someone informal, colloquial, someone whose experienced
an issue personally, overcome personal tragedy or misfortune perhaps,
not part of the establishment or self interested, driven by injustice,
dedicated to single issues.
... so, it looks like
Bob Geldof for President...
It certainly explains
why Nelson Mandela resonates across generations and around the world.
So what do we do?
As the american writer
H L Mencken said: "To every complicated question there is a simple
answer - and it's normally wrong"
Well, if people arent
interested, we could just stop covering politics - as Michael Portillo
suggested at our seminar last week. (I can't help wondering if he would
have said the same thing had events turned out differently for him).
But coverage of politics
is an essential part of the BBC's public service role - it's part of
why we get the licence fee. To explain how the world works, inform the
public and underpin a healthy democracy.
Like H L Mencken, I don't
have an easy answer. But I believe there can be creative solutions.
And that won't mean dumbing down. If anything its the opposite.
Its harder work
to make these connections between politics and people's lives, to make
journalism about difficult subjects that works for people.
It will mean breaking
some of the formats and routines and conventions that we have grown
perhaps too comfortable with.
But I think the BBC has a duty to innovate, to create something new
- particularly when we sense public attitudes shifting.
We haven't always done
it in the past - but when we have (Radio 5 Live for example) it's made
a real difference - and provided value to our audiences.
As attitudes change,
so must news programmes. One size will no longer fit all. Difference
I think the "middle
ground" that most British TV news has occupied for 30 odd years
is about to give way as broadcasters confront that cross roads I spoke
about at the beginning and maybe choose different routes.
So behind the BBCs new digital services lie many new kinds of
news for different audiences:
60 seconds, on BBC Choice
- which well expand for BBC 3 if it happens. Our new submission
should be on the DCMS website by the end of this week Im told.
60 seconds is Newsbeat for TV: Brash, young, multiscreen and multimedia.
Balance that against
BBC 4 which will have a new international news programme when it launches
next year - with a high minded serious approach to news.
Interactive TV News -
on demand, providing real choice and personalisation. We've just launched
it on Digital satellite and will extend it to other platforms next year.
And new current affairs
programmes like 4x4 on BBC ONE or the War Zone on BBC TWO. Experimental.
Serious subjects treated differently - and attracting good audiences.
As we build these new kinds of news, of course we have to support what
we already do. This isnt, as the Dumbing down accusations assume,
Either / Or - its "as well as", expanding our range.
With Mark Byford at World
Service and Pat Loughrey at the Nations and Regions my aim is to join
up the BBCs journalism.
Leading people from the
local, to the national to the global.
Harness the BBCs
journalism at all levels to a common end. Make the connections that
make sense of the world and of politics.
Weve taken the
first steps, integrating national and regional news between 6 and 7,
sharing information, placing BBC World alongside World Service radio
and online in a new global news division. But there's a lot more we
But it must all have
BBC values down the centre like a stick of rock... whether you're watching
60 seconds or the Six OClock News, Interactive TV or Newsnight
Those values - expertise,
accuracy, fairness, judgement - have been amazingly resilient through
the 20th century.
Now we'll take them forward
- but in different ways. A wider range of voices, programmes and services,
Connecting the world with people's lives. Commitment to strong original
journalism, and to innovation.
Providing, I hope, something