Trust and free speech

Date: 15.02.2013     Last updated: 15.10.2014 at 10.09
Category: Speeches
Geddes Lecture by Lord Patten of Barnes at St Edmund Hall, Oxford

It is a great honour to be invited as Chancellor of the University and Chairman of the BBC Trust to deliver this lecture which stands in the name of a brave young journalist. It is 30 years since Philip Geddes died investigating what was happening inside and outside Harrods when it was bombed by the IRA. His death reminds us of the number of journalists who die in the cause of discovering and reporting what is happening in the world.  In 2011, for example, at the BBC we lost a journalist in Afghanistan and last year the Sunday Times lost the indefatigable Marie Colvin.  Searching out truth can be a job for heroes.  As a result of the generosity of the Philip Geddes Memorial trust many young men and women have been encouraged and helped to pursue a career in journalism; I am pleased that many of them are here today.  Their presence, and the names of the distinguished former lecturers on this occasion, do honour to the memory of a courageous young man.

Eleven years ago, the Cambridge philosopher, Baroness Onora O’Neill, gave the Reith Lectures.  Presciently, she chose as her topic, "Trust".  In the first paragraph of her first lecture, she recalled the advice that Confucius gave to his disciple, Tsze-Kung.  Three things were needed for government, he said: they were weapons, food and trust.  The most important of them was trust.  We can well understand why.  Weapons, for example, were not of much use to Marshall Pétain and the French High Command in the First World War when French soldiers began to desert the trenches of Flanders.  What mattered was the trust (a point that might surprise British audiences) that most of the soldiers had in their commander, Pétain, whose actions and words persuaded them to return to the Gethsemane of the front-lines.  During and after the Second World War, when food was short in Britain, what saved the day was the trust that people had in the rationing system - snoek and all – which was imposed by the government.  "Without trust we cannot stand", Confucius concluded. 

President Nixon learned that.  So too, more recently, did President Mubarak.  It is true for leaders of every democracy who ultimately depend on voters giving them the benefit of the doubt.  And mundanely and routinely the same point is more widely valid.  To go about our daily lives, we need to have the confidence that people will behave as they have told us they will; and they need to have a similar confidence in us.  Trust is the most important currency in any society.

To some we give greater authority than we have ourselves over our physical welfare, our standard of living, the achievement of our dreams for the future.  The police enjoy their powers because we trust them not to abuse their authority – on the street, in court or on the football terraces. We place our savings in banks that we believe will look after them prudently.  We put our faith in politicians to shape our societies with honesty and integrity, even when we dislike the direction of the policies they are pursuing.  Trust as well as physics makes the world go round.

I noted at the outset, the prescience of Baroness O’Neill’s choice of subject.  The reason is simple.  From shortly after she gave those lectures, trust in some of our most important institutions – here and abroad – has been threatened by scandal of one form or another.  There are good reasons to be surprised by this as my Vice-Chairman at the BBC Trust, the economist Diane Coyle, has argued in a recent essay for the OECD.  She noted that trust, after all, is at the heart of today’s complex and advanced global economy.  Globalisation links more people than ever before from different countries and cultures.  Digital technologies bring together new communities, taking part in all kinds of social and economic innovation.  Trust is even more vital because of the growth of services in all OECD countries.  The role of trust in so much economic activity, she noted, makes corporate reputation crucial to successful business.  Yet, paradoxically, at the same time as the developments described by Diane Coyle, the trustworthiness of many of our institutions including, of course, businesses and banks has begun to be seriously questioned. .

Until last autumn, the BBC appeared to be a modest exception to this rule: our trust ratings – which were in any event usually pretty high – were steadily increasing, and peaked during and after the euphoria of the London Olympics. Of course, that didn’t last.  I’ll say something more, later on, about the questions that are raised by the appalling crimes, in the past, of Jimmy Savile.  But the really difficult questions for the BBC today were those raised by lapses in editorial judgement on the Newsnight programme, aggravated by the BBC management’s inability to provide a quick and accurate account of what had actually happened.  This allowed false accusations of cover-ups and conspiracies to take hold.

I hope we have now dealt with these immediate questions – not least through the efforts of the independent review led by an experienced television journalist and executive, Nick Pollard, which refuted the charge that the BBC had dropped its investigation into Jimmy Savile in order to protect scheduled programmes of tributes to him or for any other improper reason.  During the unravelling of that story, we lost a Director-General but moved rapidly to appoint a new one, Tony Hall, who has the clout and experience to make the changes which the Pollard report makes clear are necessary in the management of our coverage of news and current affairs.

Happily, the audience research now suggests that the BBC’s scores for ‘trust’ are recovering.  Nonetheless, there is more that we can do to try to understand the basis of that trust and to reinforce it.  The same applies to those in other walks of public life.

The proximate cause of the collapse of trust in politicians and Westminster was the scandal over parliamentary expenses.  This was not usually a case of people being on the fiddle, though that of course happened in some instances and those found guilty were punished.  Far more frequently, the problem was that the rules appeared to have been stretched further than appeared fair or seemly.  Parliamentarians have taken action to deal with these problems. 

But it is not only in Britain that support for democratic institutions has sagged.  In Washington, confidence in Congress has plummeted as partisan dogma seems to have trumped the national interest.  Political gridlock breeds contempt.  We can see similar evidence of voter dissatisfaction and contempt in India, where endemic corruption is probably the major cause.

At home, it must surely be true that hard times economically have also been a reason for the declining faith in the political process.  Politicians in the past perhaps exaggerated the extent of their role in promoting the growth of our well-being.  Now they get more blame for what has gone wrong than they probably deserve. 

The collapse of trust in banks and other financial institutions clearly has its roots in the financial crunch and the humiliation of the one-time princes of Wall Street and its satrapies.  To add insult to injury, we found that economic gains had been privatised, but losses were socialised.  Heads we lost; tails we apparently lost too.  Moreover, the gains themselves were so huge as to cause public outrage as the gap between top and median earnings became ever wider.  Often the outrage has been justified; but we have to beware allowing that anger to become infused from time to time with envious populism.

Even the police service has taken a hit.  Instinctive trust in those charged with keeping us safe and protecting our liberties and rights has been undermined by evidence of corruption and sometimes a failure to tell the truth.  There has also been some eye-brow raising evidence about the relationship – often pecuniary – between the tabloid press and the police.  There is presumably more of this story still to emerge as the judicial process runs its course.

In all these cases, blame is too often unfairly generalised.  As is true, I am sure, of most politicians and bankers, most police officers have nothing of which they need be ashamed except the behaviour of a very small minority of their colleagues.  Similarly, the vast majority of BBC staff had nothing to do with Jimmy Savile or the subsequent journalistic crises about the treatment of his life.  But to return to an old adage, of those to whom much is given – in this case authority – much is expected. 

The stories which have contributed to this decline in trust across the board have been well chronicled in our free press.  For instance, it was the Daily Telegraph which acquired and first published the details about MPs’ expenses.  It was the Guardian, in particular, that pursued the story about phone hacking.  These are reminders of the importance of uncensored newspapers in exposing the failings of our democratic society.  At their investigative best, newspapers help to keep the institutions of the state relatively honest.  Given my own personal experience, I look back to Hong Kong and observe how often it is a free Chinese language press that helps ensure that political leaders are held to account.

The role of the press in telling us what is really happening in the world – telling at least something approximating to the truth however inconvenient – has associated our newspapers historically with what Milton called "the known rules of ancient liberty".  But we have worried in recent years that something had gone badly wrong with the way our press exercise their important functions.  As the Leveson report points out in the first sentence of its executive summary, seven reports have been commissioned in 70 years dealing with concerns about the press, including three Royal Commissions.  Despite all that effort, all that soul-searching, all those Augustinian vows of a commitment to virtue just around the next corner, over the last year-and-a-half we have been plunged into the phone-hacking scandal which led to the seventh of these reviews.  We might recall what Lord Justice Leveson told us has been going on.  In his report, he noted that while the British press served the country "very well for the vast majority of the time", some press behaviour had been "outrageous" with the press ignoring its responsibilities and code of behaviour causing "real hardship" and "on occasion, [wreaking] havoc with the lives of innocent people". 

Now Parliament, newspaper editors and even the public where they are allowed, debate what should be done.  I do not intend to add my tuppence-worth; it would be inappropriate – even unseemly, to re-use that word – to do so.  But what we are facing is a series of conundrums as old as every debate about the nature of free societies.  What does freedom mean; freedom to do what exactly? I am sometimes accused of quoting Edmund Burke incontinently, not I hasten to add the worst of my crimes.  Burke made a fundamental point which we must surely accept: "liberty must be limited in order to be possessed".  How do you prevent freedom being abused?  Can you simply leave the task of protecting freedom to those who have abused the trust that was placed in them in the past on the understanding that they have turned over a new leaf?  Is any attempt to provide a guarantee of the integrity of self-policing bound to be the beginning of a slippery slope if it involves political intervention through statute or royal charter?  This is heady stuff.  My only contribution to the practicalities of resolving those questions was, in evidence to Lord Leveson’s inquiry, to refute the suggestion that the way broadcasting is regulated, with the BBC’s royal charter and the statutorily created Ofcom, might be a sensible model for keeping newspapers on the straight and narrow.  The intrusiveness of the broadcast media, in my view, puts radio and television, with their universal reach, in a different category to the written press.

As I speak, we do not yet appear to have resolved the question of who is to oversee those who see themselves as the guardians of our liberties.  Who is to hold them to account on behalf of the whole community?  I hope this can be resolved soon, and without too much hyperbole.  It is true, as George Orwell argued, that "tolerance and decency are deeply rooted in England but they are not indestructible".  On the other hand, we are not threatened by Stalinist censorship.  There is a danger of exaggeration on both sides of this argument.

Ultimately, the press will need to find their own solutions to these questions – working I hope constructively with the political parties and concerned representatives of the public.  It’s certainly not for me to prescribe the way forward.  Instead I want use the second half of this lecture to talk about how I think the BBC needs to respond to recent events and what it can do to secure and maintain the public’s trust.

Let me first place the BBC in its national context.

Like many of our greatest institutions, the BBC emerged almost by accident.  In the early days of radio, it was quickly transformed into a publicly funded broadcaster, independent of both government and private ownership.  It was never a state broadcaster, trumpeting the views of the government of the day.  It emerged as a national not a state broadcaster, an important distinction.  Its independence, regularly challenged even today, is both operational and editorial, and has launched it over the decades into fight after fight with governments and politicians.  What has sustained it is public trust in its core values and purposes.  Financially, it is paid for by a licence fee, which is at the same rate for everyone, something which gives it a duty to try and provide services that are equally comprehensive.  Yet it also has a responsibility to challenge the enthusiasm and intellectual appetite of its audiences.  It has to offer more than the market and the need to maximise profit would provide.  It has to set its sights on the highest common factor not the lowest common denominator.  In my own post-Reithian judgement, when it does not aspire to do this it is falling short of its purposes, dumbing down.  But when it aims high, it can be accused of being pedagogical, patronising and highbrow.  At the BBC we should not mind that criticism one little bit.  We have to offer programmes that appeal to all, and programmes that create an appeal that may often surprise.  Whatever the programme, the standard to aim at is excellence – from "Strictly Come Dancing" to "The Hollow Crown", from the Proms to "Test Match Special".

The mantra to summarise these purposes is that we should inform, educate and entertain, which naturally encompasses our function as one of the largest news organisations in the world.  It may not be surprising that this is invariably the area of maximum difficulty for us, costing three Directors General their jobs in 30 years and convulsing us on those occasions in controversy.  This is because, without being sanctimonious, more is expected of us and we should expect more of ourselves.

In her novel about the BBC during the war, "Human Voices", Penelope Fitzgerald expressed the point very well: "Broadcasting House was," she wrote, "in fact dedicated to the strangest project of the war, or of any war, that of telling the truth."

We have to aim always for the truth, including the truth however horrible it may be about ourselves.  Indeed, it has often seemed to me in recent months that it is not only others who have a sense of schadenfreude when reporting our failings; the BBC often appears to bathe in the schadenfreude itself when picking over its own mistakes.  I suspect this is a rather British quality.

Being as honest, fair, accurate and balanced as possible – trying to ensure that we capture the nation’s breadth of voice and opinion – is essential to building trust in the BBC at home and indeed abroad, where the BBC’s services are hugely admired.  This is our most important contribution to civic humanism and to explaining to others what this country stands for.  Does anyone think that if the BBC’s global broadcasting was thought to reflect the British government’s official point of view it would be as popular and admired?  The BBC’s reputation depends on us being thought to tell things as they are and we must do that from a position outside the reach of governments and politicians.

The privileged position that we occupy, in the public realm but not usually in the government of the day’s book, also explains some of the enthusiasm which people bring with them when they come to work at the BBC.  I still feel this myself, and it’s perhaps particularly marked in those who have grown up in nations and cultures without an organisation like the BBC, for example, many of those now working for our World Service..  It helps drive the constant innovation and creativity – both in its engineering projects and its editorial output – that make the institution what it is.  Because the BBC is a constant work in progress. The BBC aspires to a series of ideals - universal reach, accuracy in reporting, impartiality, pluralism, the highest standards of quality and distinctiveness - that should never allow for complacency or the development of a "holier than thou" spirit.

I think the public buy into these ideals.  But that means they are rightly hard on the BBC when it fails to live up to them.

The most serious charge against the BBC in the Savile case is that this pervert committed his crimes in our own buildings, on our watch.  The same is true about other institutions where more crimes may have been committed.  Could this have been done without collusion or a deliberate policy of Nelson’s eye?  Did no one know what he was doing? The distinguished Appeal Court judge, Dame Janet Smith, is looking at these matters at the moment and will report later this year.

While other institutions stand with us in the public dock, there is one particular feature of the story that we feel in a more existential way.  Savile was a BBC star; his celebrity was created by his role as a popular figure in light entertainment. 

The BBC has long relied on a marriage between populism and high-mindedness, a particular combination of showbiz and didacticism, to fulfil its mission.  In doing that, perhaps in the past we celebrated the eccentricities and oddities of many of our stars in a way that with hindsight may seem naïve. 

Nonetheless, it is not unreasonable and in no way self-exculpatory to note that Jimmy Savile’s celebrity was inflated by others as well as by the BBC.  As a senior policeman noted, he groomed the nation, but he was also lionised by many national figures and institutions.  If you wish to understand just how extensive was his celebrity, take a look at some of the newspaper obituaries of him.  You would think that the nation was mourning the passing of Mother Teresa.

One aspect of celebrity culture that I would doubtless be mocked for feeling rather squeamish about, is the way that men and women are raised on pinnacles (sometimes for reasons that seem to have little to do with talent) and are then with gusto torn down – even if, in this case, Jimmy Savile deserved the second part.  In due course when Dame Janet reports, we shall know how much as an institution we have to feel ashamed and guilty about in retrospect.  Our task is to find out what happened, to own up if it emerges that any BBC staff were complicit in any crimes in the past, and to make sure that we have in place arrangements that would stop anything similar happening again.

Inevitably, the trust on which the BBC’s place in our national life above all depends has been hit by the Savile scandal and its handling.  Despite that, the polls continue to show that the public still trusts the BBC far more than any other news organisation.    That trust translates into audience habits and behaviour so that, for instance, while the BBC accounts for just over a quarter of all the TV news minutes which are broadcast it is responsible for something nearer three quarters of all the TV news that is consumed.  I am a big admirer of Sky’s rolling news programmes (which took for instance an admirably independent line in covering the problems of the Murdoch empire), but when the Trust reviewed the BBC News Channel in 2011 we found that it had a higher reach than Sky News even in homes with a Sky box. 

We have enjoyed those figures because we have usually earned them. We are obliged, as I have said, to be fair, accurate and balanced across the whole range of our programming.  Like other broadcasters, we seek to be duly impartial.  Unlike other broadcasters, we conduct regular reviews into how well we are achieving that impartiality across a range of different types of programming.    Newspapers have a different function; they have a point of view.  They reflect it in their coverage.  Their readers buy papers knowing this.  There are papers of the Left and the Right.  There are newspapers that think that Britain is in danger of going to the dogs.  There are newspapers that think that Britain went to the dogs long ago – or at least as long ago as the last General Election.  Newspapers have been in favour of this war, against that war; in favour of the British membership of the EU, against it; in favour of immigration, and against it.  If we lost this sort of opinionated journalism, life would be much duller. 

Of course it also means that there are newspapers with a particular opinion or position on the BBC. Sometimes that position is coloured by commercial considerations, sometimes by an antipathy to the whole notion of a public sector broadcaster.  I accept that as being the way of the world.  We must accept too that, perhaps because of the central role that our services play in so many people’s lives, some newspapers seem to blame the BBC, in part, for some of the faults they find with modern Britain.  In any case, it is right that newspapers should question and challenge the BBC and the way it is run.  There is not much to be said for being over-sensitive about it.  What should most concern us, the criticism we should take very seriously, is that which touches three areas.

First, there is the question of how well the BBC manages the licence fee payers’ money.  Is the BBC an efficient manager?  The story here is mixed but by and large it has been improving.  For example, the last value for money study conducted by the National Audit Office on our financial management gave us a reasonably clean bill of health.  But there are issues which concern the BBC Trust, which is not responsible for the operational management of the BBC but sets the overall strategy within which it should be managed.  Of direct interest to licence fee payers are questions of remuneration, including some of the  severance packages which have been negotiated over the years with the more senior staff. 

The Trust has already taken several steps on remuneration.  We have urged both a reduction in the number of senior staff and their total pay bill.  Both have fallen by about 30 per cent over the last few years.  We have removed private health insurance from the packages negotiated with new recruits to senior positions.  The Trust has required the BBC Executive to implement the central recommendation of Will Hutton’s report on public sector pay which caps the multiple of senior pay to median earnings.  The aim is to reduce that cap.  I hope that other public sector organisations will follow suit.

As for severance payments, clearly the £450,000 received by George Entwistle was, for many people on modest incomes, an unreal sum of money.  As I explained to the Select Committee at the time, it was the price we needed to pay, in extreme circumstances, to resolve a crisis of leadership at the very top of the BBC, and the cost was smaller, as our outside lawyers pointed out, than would have arisen from a constructive dismissal claim.  Nonetheless, I accept that there is still a broader issue to be tackled here.

Since a large number of senior managers have left the BBC on their existing contracts, the overall pay for severance in the past few years has been high.  I understand why the BBC Executive may have been limited in what it could do to reduce this bill.  But we need to do what we can to stop adding to it.  Future contracts will have to include tougher terms.  We have ourselves in the Trust asked the NAO to look at this issue in their next round of value for money studies, and we hope with their help that the BBC Executive will put in place a more reasonable set of arrangements for the future.

We know that the BBC has to compete for talent with the private sector and that the Executive is already paying at a discount to the rest of the market of around 70 per cent.  That is a reality which will not change.  We will continue to lose talented people to other broadcasters.  We have to see part of our role as training talent for the rest of the industry.  What the BBC should offer those who come to work at it and stay with it is the opportunity of a career in one of the greatest and most admired broadcasters and creative organisations in the world.

Second, any well-founded criticism of the quality and accuracy of our journalism will always require urgent attention.  On almost every sensitive issue from the Middle East to climate change, from Europe to macro-economic management, we are likely to find ourselves criticised from both sides.  It is not enough for the BBC to argue that if it is being criticised from both sides, it must have got things just about right.  We have to try to ensure that we reflect the complexity of issues, and that intelligent contrary opinions are given proper weight.  In order to check how well we are doing on these issues, the BBC Trust conducts an annual independent review of a particular newsworthy subject and holds seminars with the same purpose.  The review this year is considering whether the BBC provides a breadth of opinion across its services, looking in some detail at the BBC’s treatment of immigration, Europe and religion.  Where we get things wrong, we should apologise as quickly as possible and correct the mistake.  The BBC should take pride in the fact that it is held to such high standards and not bridle at the challenge.  But the need for balance and accuracy must not inhibit good investigative journalism.  Investigative journalism, like that which exposed the failings in care provision, is difficult to manage whether in a newspaper or in a broadcasting organisation.  That is one of the tasks for senior executives as the Pollard Report made clear.

The accuracy of our reporting matters as much abroad as at home.  We know from surveys what a great national asset the World Service has been and remains.  In countries around the world which are free and in those where freedom is still only an aspiration, the World Service is thought to exemplify the core values of pluralism.  For years it has been funded without – to risk understatement - excessive generosity by government. In less than two years the funding responsibility will fall to the licence fee payer.  I believe this is a responsibility whose importance will be recognised by most of those who are paying for it.  But what we offer the world goes beyond the World Service.  The most watched of any of our channels is our rolling World News. It has an estimated weekly global audience of 72.5 million.  We have not in the past invested enough in this service, but now with the Trust’s encouragement the BBC is spending more on a greatly improved service.  It was relaunched last month and I believe that audiences will recognise its steady improvement and that it will be regarded as a valuable part of the face which Britain shows to the world.

At the core of the BBC’s purpose is the third area where any informed criticism should be taken very seriously.  We have to be ambitious and distinctive in our programming on radio television and online, providing different and well-curated services, distinguished by the quality of their content.  Yes, we have to make programmes which give something to all our audiences – local radio, sport, Saturday evening entertainment shows, "soaps".  All these matter.  But we must never be driven simply by ratings.  As I have argued consistently since I became Chairman of the Trust in mid-2011, we have a licence to be different.  The BBC’s scale, security and independence allow us the freedom to experiment, to be creative, to take risks.  To surprise, sometimes to shock and even sometimes, unfortunately, to offend.  The BBC must have the courage to do all that – in its mainstream schedules not just on niche services.  The BBC has to retain that courage.  That is what it should mean to be a public service broadcaster, and in the BBC’s case to be at the social and cultural heart of our nation’s life, a part of the national conversation.

As we recover from the Savile affair, applying the lessons that need to be learned, we must go back to our basic purposes and ambitions.  We have survived so long – for 90 years – because we have been thought to be a useful and valued part of national life.  I see no reason why that should change.  The impact of the digital revolution will only enhance the importance of the qualities to which at our best we aspire and often achieve.  This is the way to regain any trust we have lost in recent months, continuing to play our role in a society which exercises its freedoms responsibly without weakening the bonds that help to give us a common purpose in this country.

All of us in public life should be careful about the words we use and the principles we appropriate.  It is always very tempting to use words like trust, liberty, choice and freedom in a simple or unqualified way, in support of whatever argument we want to make.  In fact, as I have already said, we will often need to accept limits and qualifications to those principles.  For example, as Onora O’Neill points out, free speech is necessary for the pursuit of truth; but it is not sufficient to ensure it: a fact with which every university is acquainted.

For any powerful institution in any walk of life, there have to be some limits on freedom – both freedom of action and freedom of speech - in the pursuit of public trust, responsibility and accountability.  This is not a problem specific to the media.  There are many industries and institutions where it is difficult to work out what those limits ought to be or how they ought to work.  For the BBC, the challenge has always been to set our own standards and boundaries in the right way so that we can promote our core purpose – the pursuit of truth – in a way that the public trust and respect.  And that includes from time to time pursuing the truth about ourselves even when it is grisly.