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19 April 2014
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Speeches

Richard Sambrook

Director of BBC News


From Global to Local - Connecting with Audiences


4 December 2001
Printable version

Speech 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 news channels.


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 to take.

So where should the BBC go? Let’s 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. You’d 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 tradition.


We shouldn't take it for granted.


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 country.


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 o’clock to choose the BBC because they recognise our commitment to national and regional news. Both performing well.

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 don’t 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 won’t 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 enough".


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 don’t like.


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 it‘s 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 I’m proud to defend their right to do it.


It’s 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 Simpson’s 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. It’s easy to get people to watch when there’s 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 people's attention.

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: We’ve 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 don’t 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 did.


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 don’t watch...


And this isn’t 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, let’s be frank, low audiences for election programmes demanded we think hard about how a public service broadcaster should report politics.

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" - it’s 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 don’t like the way it’s 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 performance.


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 don’t always spend it if the goods aren’t worthwhile."


No wonder it's the end of deference.


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 aren’t 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 it’s the opposite.


It’s 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 is good.


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 BBC’s new digital services lie many new kinds of news for different audiences:


60 seconds, on BBC Choice - which we’ll expand for BBC 3 if it happens. Our new submission should be on the DCMS website by the end of this week I’m 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 isn’t, as the Dumbing down accusations assume, Either / Or - it’s "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 BBC’s journalism.


Leading people from the local, to the national to the global.


Harness the BBC’s journalism at all levels to a common end. Make the connections that make sense of the world and of politics.


We’ve 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 can do.


But it must all have BBC values down the centre like a stick of rock... whether you're watching 60 seconds or the Six O’Clock 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 unique.



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