Speech by James Harding, Director of BBC News and Current Affairs, on The Future Of BBC News And Current Affairs In A Global Digital Age

Date: 18.12.2014     Last updated: 18.12.2014 at 12.46
Category: News; Corporate
Hosted by City University London on 18 December 2014.

Good morning.

One of the things I enjoyed about W1A was the portrayal of the Director of News character who seemed to be endlessly ducking out of meetings to take a phone call, roll his eyes and swear. This morning, I thought I might take the opportunity to tell you what, other than that, I’ve been doing in News - both to reflect on a momentous year and look ahead.

2014 has been a year of exceptionally diverse and demanding stories - the Scottish referendum; the floods; Rotherham; UKIP; the Commonwealth Games and the World Cup; Ebola; Ukraine; IS; Boko Haram; the Malaysian airliners; Hong Kong. And, at the same time, huge change within BBC News.

We are changing at a time when there’s a lot less money available. We had to make £50 million of savings this year, after four consecutive years of cuts. And many people in BBC News are, understandably, unhappy. Losing 415 jobs is incredibly painful for the individuals directly involved and the waves it creates are acutely felt by all of our teams of journalists and production staff.

We have had to make some hard choices. We have restructured – a restructuring focused on two things: enabling original journalism and the digital transformation of BBC News.

The digital transformation of BBC News, of course, did not start this year and it certainly will not finish to the strains of Auld Lang Syne. But we have been driving innovation and improvement. The mobile sites are now responsive in 30 languages; the Twitter breaking news feed topped 10m users; BBC News is the most retweeted news source worldwide; BBC Trending has gone from obscurity to the envy of newsrooms everywhere; the Weather app is the most popular we’ve ever done. And, most significantly, the new BBC News app went into BETA testing yesterday. We will roll it out in the New Year. It represents a huge step forward on two fronts that really matter in mobile: personalisation and video. What you need to know, wherever you are, whenever you want it.

We have renewed the case for the BBC’s contribution to the revival of local journalism. We have shown a willingness to take on the wrong-headed argument that the problems of the local newspaper industry are the BBC’s fault; and we have shown a willingness to work with the local newspapers in meaningful partnerships. Someone said to me this week that the definition of partnership is “the mutual suspension of loathing in the pursuit of resources”. Well, I hope it can be more than that, as there is a real issue of information inequality in this country. Rich, old, white people are getting a better diet of news than poorer, younger and non-white people. And that’s increasingly true in national vs local news. Redressing the balance is one of the reasons we’ve doubled the regional news coverage in England in the 10 O’Clock news hour in the months ahead of the election.

As I said at a conference we hosted in Salford in June, the pessimism around local journalism is overdone. And at that meeting, we started talking about practical cooperation – and, in the months since, we have got on with it.

Here’s one example, we have launched Local Live pilots in West Yorkshire and the North East to improve linking to other news sites from the BBC Local Live module – they’re continuing and have had good feedback from regional newspaper groups. We are also doing more on training. In January we will host the first of our joint industry events looking at data journalism at a local level. It’s in our self-interest to see a thriving local news business. I believe it’s in the local news business’ self-interest to see a thriving BBC. If we want to, we can make that happen. We’re open to it.

At the same time, we are making the most of the fact that the BBC is the world’s most global news service. Not just because it serves a worldwide audience of more than 250 million people. But because it has the voices and views, experience and contacts of the World Service – the language services, Monitoring, Media Action, World News - at the heart of it. And since the journalists at Bush House moved into New Broadcasting House, the World Service teams on the 5th floor are driving our reporting and analysis like never before. This week, Shaimaa Khalil, a former World Service correspondent, has been reporting from Peshawar, backed in no small part by the Urdu Service, the service that edited and published Malala Yousufzai’s blog long before she was a Nobel prize winner. Hard to recall that back in 2008, when the Taliban imposed a ban on girls' education in Pakistan's Swat Valley, no-one had heard of the schoolgirl from Mingora before BBC Urdu reporters set out to capture the impact the conflict was having on the pupils involved.

Last week on the News at Ten, Nafiseh Kohnavard from the BBC Persian service was given exclusive access to the army operation taking in food and supplies to the Yazidi refugees on top of Mount Sinjar in northern Iraq, escaping from ‘Islamic State’; the BBC Hausa team has made possible on-the-ground reporting of Boko Haram from Northern Nigeria; the Chinese service has helped us understand the fall of Zhou Yongkang; and across two days in November, the Arabic service team in Damascus was the bedrock of the BBC News coverage which went back to the heart of the crisis that has engulfed the Middle East – Syria’s War. At a time when news is an increasingly globalised commodity, the World Service, now funded by the licence fee, gives us roots across the world and a depth of understanding beyond the everyday compass of a visiting correspondent.

But the primary role of the World Service Group, of course, is to serve audiences outside of the UK. And I was struck by the remarks made by the chief executive of Guardian Media Group, Andrew Miller, in October. I’d better be careful – he’s speaking after me!

Andrew has criticised the BBC’s recent expansion in Australia. He said the BBC’s move into Australia, where the Guardian launched a local online edition last year, threatened to distort the market and had no benefit for UK licence fee payers.

Well. What has the BBC done? Actually, we decided to tailor the BBC.com homepage for the local audience. And to do so, we appointed two people - a local editor and a homepage editor. Hardly a distortion of one of the world’s most competitive news markets, nor, I think, a threat to the Guardian’s ambitions there.

And, more importantly, I don’t want to see the World Service, now that it is funded by the licence fee payer, losing its appetite to serve people around the world. There are plenty of global news providers – CCTV, Russia Today, Al Jazeera – who would love to see the BBC reined in globally. I make no apology for our ambitions for the World Service. When it started broadcasting in 1932, John Reith warned listeners to keep their expectations low. Instead, it far exceeded them. We want to go on doing that. It is, to my mind, Britain’s best loved and most respected export. We should build it up, not tear it down. It’s a global news service that is trusted, respected and relied upon by a quarter of a billion people around the world. Our ambition is to double our global audience by 2022 to half a billion.

And even in our connected world, reliable, independent information is more needed than ever. Throughout the long history of the Cold War, the BBC World Service was broadcasting behind the Iron Curtain to a people denied the basic right of freedom of speech. The world does not stand still, and the Berlin Wall has long been reduced to rubble. So while today we are driving digital growth through mobile and social products we are also looking at how we can develop a service that might work for North Korea. And, I must say, we find ourselves increasingly reflecting on the position of the media in Russia and Turkey.

To go back to Andrew’s concerns, there is I think a fundamental misunderstanding in this country about the BBC and Britain’s media in the world. None of us should be whingeing, because we’re winning: Britain’s news media sector is a global success story.

This is the subject of a report we’re publishing today by Mediatique. It shows the huge opportunities generated by the digital, global news market – and how the UK news industry is using its competitive advantages to grab them.

Looking at the industry as a whole, we know we are an important part of one of the world’s most successful online news markets:

  • The UK supports more journalists per capita than in the US
  • It generates half a billion pounds of online news revenues a year – up 65% in the past two years alone; and
  • It reaches a global audience, dominating the charts of the world’s leading online news providers (the BBC, Guardian and Daily Mail are often mentioned but the Telegraph, Independent and Mirror Groups are also up there in the world’s top 15 newspaper sites).

Britain’s media landscape allows for plurality and enables democratic engagement in society. And it suggests that people appreciate the difference between social media and public service journalism: perhaps the starkest finding is that the BBC is five times more likely to be chosen as an online source to “check whether something is true” than the next nearest provider.

For the BBC is here when people have two questions. What’s really going on? And what does it actually mean? Our first job is to report. Increasingly, though, what matters to people – certainly to me – is the journalism that explains, that investigates, that holds to account. And, what we’ve been working hardest on this year across BBC News and Current Affairs is delivering on that commitment to our reporting, our understanding, to quality journalism.

On the Six and Ten, for example, we have been telling stories you simply can’t see anywhere else. For a year, Fergal Keane worked with the father of a fallen British soldier to consider the cost and the consequences of Britain’s military engagement in Afghanistan. We have created new formats for explaining the world we find ourselves in, whether it’s Jeremy Bowen considering the world a year on from the Syria vote, Carrie Gracie on Xi Jinping, Kamal Ahmed on Tesco or Mark Easton weighing the choices for constitutional change in the UK; similarly, we have given space for breaking stories, not to mention telling real stories, such as Alison Holt’s exceptional account of Emma’s story in Rotherham.

On Today and 5live, the World at One and PM, you see the same thing: more original reporting, interviews that, day in and day out, set the agenda in news, people asked to explain themselves. BBC Breakfast, one of the real powerhouses of News, is forcing us to think about big issues from dementia to loneliness through the power of its original journalism. The BBC News Channel, as we saw on the day of the Autumn Statement, is not only the place that’s breaking stories, but asking the people who make them to explain themselves.

Newsnight, meanwhile, is getting back to what it should be: the most interesting news programme on British television. It’s got back its confidence, ambition, wit and real intelligence. If you caught Gabriel Gatehouse's sophisticated and textured reporting from Moscow last night on the impact of the rouble crisis, or Duncan Weldon’s analysis on the night of the Autumn statement, Chris Cook’s dissection of the arguments about the NHS, Laura Kuenssberg’s exposure of Premier Foods’ treatment of small businesses, Mark Urban’s scoop on aircraft carriers, Allegra Stratton’s subtle exploration of what is shaping up to be Britain's most complicated election, and, alongside Kirsty and Emily, Evan Davis’ open and inquiring mind at work each night, you’d agree with me. Once again, if you miss Newsnight, you’re out of it.

And what about this nonsense that the BBC is not committed to investigative journalism? I hope we’ve put paid to that: Panorama’s exposure of the Mazher Mahmood, the so-called ‘Fake Sheikh’ and this week’s film on the questions around the conviction of Colin Norris, The Untold Story of Baby P – an hour and a half of prime-time on BBC One, brought to television by the singular persistence of BBC One’s Controller Charlotte Moore – and the Lion’s Last Roar on BBC Two - a two-part series telling the story of the conflict in Afghanistan. And, meanwhile, Radio Current Affairs is what it is: a beacon of excellence.

So let me just address the musing that’s going on about the future of investigative journalism in the event that the BBC makes radical changes to in-house production in television. I want us to examine really closely whether and how it could work in Current Affairs. There are a range of different factual and current affairs programmes that we make. But nor is there much point in sending unnecessary hares running: I don’t expect that investigative journalism, the kinds of films that we make for Panorama, are going to be put in a separate TV production business.

Next month, we’re looking to open up the conversation we’ve been having inside the BBC and with a host of big news organisations around the world about the Future of News. We are also going to keep on when it comes to diversity, disability and equality in the BBC: we have made real progress in the past year, on screen and off it – look or listen to last night’s news and you’ll see what I mean - but, to my mind, it’s not enough. We’re going to have to go further, faster. We need to make sure we’re alive to the interests and concerns of all our audiences. We have to broaden the tone of what we do. And we have to safeguard our independence.

With an election year ahead, let me say that we need to stand firm – and we will – against any attempts to politicise our journalism. It is the BBC’s job to hold politicians to account – and asking difficult questions is not a form of attack. I make the point not because of close encounters of a recent kind – but because it goes for politicians of any stripe. Of course, we make mistakes. The BBC must be accountable for its journalism and ready to admit its wrongs – not as a result of undue political pressure but because we recognise that these things can happen.

Nobody knows what the outcome of next year’s election will be. The job of all news organisations is to ensure that voters arrive at polling day armed with the information they need. And, while politicians may discuss the BBC, our job is to put the public first. We will not be deterred or distracted by criticism, nor allow the debates about BBC funding mechanisms get in the way of our journalism. It’s been fashionable in the last few years to disparage journalism or despair of its future. It’s plain looking at the world today that it’s never been more important or more needed. 2015 is certainly going to be interesting. And I expect I may be ducking out of the odd meeting, to take a call, roll my eyes and swear.

Thank you.

BBC Press Office