James Harding - speech to BBC News staff

Date: 02.07.2014     Last updated: 02.07.2014 at 14.00
Category: News; Corporate
Speech given by James Harding, BBC Director of News and Current Affairs, to BBC staff at Broadcasting House on 2 July 2014.

At 7.30 in the evening on 5 July 1954, the BBC broadcast its first television news bulletin. It looked like this:


This could, of course, lead me neatly into a speech on heart disease, vegetarianism or second helpings. Or, in fact, it could prompt quite an interesting conversation about why we ever lost the musical backing-track to news packages. But, instead, I’d like to talk about innovation in news and current affairs.

In just under a century, the BBC has transformed the world of news – and the world – with three revolutions: first in radio; then in television; and then online. Now, mobile technology affords us the chance to lead a Fourth Revolution. In the age of the smartphone, we have entered the age of smart news, of handheld, news of what, for want of a better term, I will simply call interactive news – news that is portable and personalised; news that is fully internet-enabled and responsive; news that is available to everyone, everywhere, right now; news in which everyone has a hand on the microphone, i.e. not just broadcast, transmitted or distributed, but shared, exchanged, checked, investigated and explained as much by the audience as the author; news that can plug you in to what’s happening anywhere in the world, but equally root you into where you live and work; news that puts the world, with all this implies, in the palm of your hand.

As with television news 60 years ago, we have no idea what will come of this. The implications for politics and justice, business and the economy, the arts and culture, life and sport will be profound - and unpredictable. Just as we did in watching that clip, no doubt, people will look back at what we’re doing today and, with a patronising nostalgia, laugh at us. But let’s be clear, if we miss this revolution, they won’t even do that.

I appreciate that this is a difficult time to start enthusing about the future. People are, understandably, concerned about the substantial programme of cost savings I will set out later this month. But I want to talk today about where BBC News is going for two reasons: one, when the cuts are announced, the savings and the job losses will, of course, be the story. There will be little appetite for considering what it means about the direction of News. Second, it’s important that, for all of us, there is a sense of our ambition and direction.

My priorities for BBC News and Current Affairs are simple. Let’s deliver original journalism that we can be proud of; let’s drive the digital transformation of News; and let’s make this a better place to work. We are allocating our resources around those things. And the most ambitious of those is driving our digital transformation – making sure the BBC defines the fourth revolution, the connected newsroom, the age of interactive news.

The old rule at the BBC applies, if you have an idea, someone’s already had it – and working on it. That’s true when it comes to innovation in news. The BBC is at the forefront of news consumption on mobile and social networks. Look at BBC Shorts, the 15 second videos for social and mobile consumption; at BBC Trending; at the GoFigure infographics, produced in English, Arabic, Turkish, Russian; long-form digital storytelling, such as the recent Reykjavik Confessions; the Whatsapp experiment during the Indian elections; the 2014 election coverage from Sutton; at the best Weather app out there; the fact that @BBCbreaking have more than the average daily audience of the 10 o’clock news – the weekly figure for the 10, is, of course, much higher; the BBC is the top Twitter news publisher in the world. And there’s more, coming soon – an enhanced News app, plans for Newsbeat, a complete overhaul of how video is presented online.

Given how I am prone to rattle off these achievements in digital innovation, I want to show a film that tries to underline the point: if you work at the BBC, you are already working in the most innovative digital newsroom in this country, arguably the world. And before the sizzlereel junkies in the audience start getting excited about the prospect of 3 minutes listening to an anthemic rock tune overlaid on pictures of people they know bringing their lunch back from the canteen, I’m afraid we’ve tried to do something slightly different with this film – it’s longer, a bit more explanatory and it owes its inspiration more to the Open University than Match Of The Day.


I hope that makes the simple point: we are on the case. We already operate a social, mobile and increasingly personalised newsroom. But are we moving fast and far enough? In all previous revolutions in news, we’ve led the way because we’ve been a step ahead of what people want and expect. And, this week, as we honour the innovation that led to the introduction of TV News, it’s both impertinent and important to ask this question: how long before television is no longer the pre-eminent medium in News?

There are 5.8 billion televisions in the world; 5.3 billion mobile phones – 78 per cent penetration for TV, 73 per cent for mobile phones. Pretty soon, the number of phones in the world will overtake the number of TVs. Today, only a minority of those phones are smartphones but, that, too, will change. The recent work done by the Reuters Institute found that, across 10 countries surveyed, more than a third of young people – 36 per cent of people aged 18-24 – already say that their smartphone is their primary access point for news. And surely the pace of this change will only accelerate. With high speed mobile networks such as 4G rolling out and access to superfast broadband networks made available from shopping centres to public spaces to transport systems, the age of mobile video is upon us. Are we ready for it?

While we are going to see a structural decline in the consumption of the news through linear broadcasting, we should make no mistake that broadcasting will continue to reach large audiences for a long time to come. Indeed, globally, TV may grow to be the most important way we distribute news over the next decade. And, there is as much of a risk to us of abandoning our biggest audiences, the bulk of our licence fee payers, in pursuit of the new new thing, as there is of us missing the bus to the future. We have got to look forward five years, while never losing sight of the fact that nothing is more important than what we put on the news today.

But there is a structural change underway. Increasingly, the future is personal, portable and on-demand. This is self-evident when it comes to the smartphone, but it’s plainly true for the TV too: 49% of TVs in the US are now connected to the web, up from 38% in 2012; and that 24% of adults in the US watch video from the internet via connected TV weekly (up from 13% two years ago). It’s easy to consider this an alarming challenge: the barriers to entry in TV news are tumbling. Anyone can, in effect, be a broadcaster – anyone with a smartphone and a broadband connection can gather, edit, package, put together a bulletin and, in no time, deliver it on screen up against the News at Six on the BBC. The powers that be are not just us. It’s anyone. And, if we are flat-footed or too set in our ways, then, yes, the BBC could miss out on the most exciting era in journalism since the advent of television.

But given that innovation is in our genes, that serving all audiences is our purpose and, therefore, reaching them any which way we can is in our blood, then I’d suggest that it’s much more likely that the future promises not a smaller slice of the cake, but a bigger cake. That is what the data shows. It is what history suggests: video did not kill the radio star; online has not replaced TV; news in your hand won’t supplant news in your home. They will add to it. Fran Unsworth likes to say we are no longer living in the ‘either/or’ age, but the age of ‘and’: TV and the iPad; Question Time and Twitter; the big screen and the small one.

And, for us as journalists, social and mobile media not only mean competition, but liberation. It empowers all of us in how we can gather news, the way we tell stories, the way we collect pictures and audio, the way we check stories, source information, provide context, package up the news. Handheld news is as much of a revolution for people producing it as people consuming it.

And yet, the most profound point of all is that this fourth revolution will blur the lines between the two, between production and consumption, between what used to be the author and the audience. People increasingly expect to contribute, to comment, to share – not simply to consume. News has long been a spectator sport for most people. No longer. Now, anyone can, if they want, play the game. And, as a result, their relationship depends, crucially, on how we enable them to participate. More than that, their trust in us is derived from authenticity and transparency, accessibility and interactivity as it is from accuracy and impartiality, authority and reputation.

So, in practical terms, what are we going to do to lead this revolution, to be the innovators in interactive news?

First, we’ve got to have a culture where we experiment. The best ideas will come from anywhere. Everyone must have a licence to innovate. One of the reasons I’m such a fan of BBC Trending is that it’s brilliant. The other is that it’s one of our most popular social media innovations and it was born in Radio Current Affairs and, in collaboration with our digital teams using Twitter Amplify to deliver in-tweet videos, real-time social analytics and the Youtube channel, it’s become a global hit. And we don’t just have to be good at experimenting, we have to be disciplined about scaling up what works and scrapping what doesn’t.

Second, we have to invest. MyBBC is a concerted effort to take a mass media organisation and equip it for the age of personalisation. Across the board, this will transform what we can do in News. Likewise, we have to make our systems work: we are brilliant at telling stories in video and audio, but our systems for getting those packages – or making those packages – for the web are extremely cumbersome. Our investments targeted at interactive news will, among other things, fix that.

Third, we have to work out how we organise ourselves. We are a multimedia news organisation. Everyone has to be a digital journalist working across platforms. But we also have to focus. We have to make sure we deliver for our audiences today, that our bulletins have the best stories, brilliantly told, that our programmes interrogate, explain and analyse the news. In a world of abundant information, the need to prioritise and summarise, explain and examine the day’s developments is more important than ever. In current affairs, we need to look beyond the daily news, to investigate what goes unseen or underreported, to explore what’s changing and why it matters, to reveal, to question, to challenge. And, in an age of interactive, 24/7 media, we have to do all of those things while transforming live, rolling and connected news so that we can give anyone the power to choose the news and use the news wherever and whenever they want.

And, fourth, we have to have imagination. That means not starting with what we do, but thinking about what people want. What’s the future of health news, local news, ideas and opinions? After all, fitbits mean we can interact with information about our own health. Geofeedia tell us in new ways what’s happening where we are, while services like State.com are redefining communities beyond geography. The Future of News project that will run through the rest of the year is intended, as part of the review of the BBC’s Charter, to imagine what technology will be able to do, what people will expect and what stories will matter and how they will be told over the decade to come.

The interactive revolution in News makes a huge demand of us, but it’s not the only one. Globally, we have to ask how do we retain our leadership in news worldwide and ensure that better-resourced challengers from China, Russia, the Gulf don’t eat our lunch? As Sir Howard Stringer’s report urges, the answer lies in big ambitions. In local news, we have plenty to do. As I said last week, there is a revival under way in local journalism and we should be part of it. On diversity, equality and disability. The BBC is for all of us. If we’re going to land the stories that speak to everyone, we’re going to have to make sure we, the BBC, look like, sound like, and, most importantly, understand the people we serve. We have a long way to go on diversity, equality and disability, but we are on the move. And we have to keep making the BBC a better place to work. This is, I think, already the best place to work in news. When you look at the opportunities to cover almost anything in the world, the variety of the ways to tell stories, the impact and influence we have as well as the shift patterns, the job sharing, the part time opportunities, the access to high quality training, this is a brilliant place to work. But, if we are going to retain people in a competitive market for reporters and camera crews, editors and directors, engineers and developers, then we have to keep on making it a better place to work. We don’t have more money, we have considerably less, but we have to find ways to make it more rewarding. Karl Burnett is working on a programme of things we might do. I am, genuinely, interested in the thoughts people have on this. So, if you have a proposal, please send it my way.

When I got here, someone asked me what is my strategy for News. I said, rather naively: “Strategy? For news? How about just getting some stories.” And, to be plain, that’s still my priority. Journalism is what I love most about this job: big stories, global events, breaking news, investigative reporting, charming, moving, funny stories, courage, intelligence and judgment, warmth, wit and heart, holding people to account, examining our behaviour, exposing wrong-doing and understanding the world. Original journalism, as I am learning at the BBC, can mean more than I previously understood it to be – not just breaking stories and long-running investigations, but exclusive interviews, smart bookings and well-judged questions, new forms of gathering information and analysing data. And, look at the last few weeks, at the stories we have landed – Prince Charles’s views on grammar schools or the history of Knowl View, the funding pressures at the NHS and as a result of the ESA, the political coverage of the European and local elections, as well as stories on forced marriage in Africa, the dark web in the States and the frontline in Iraq.

We are, I believe, in a battle for the future of the BBC. We need to have a strategy, a case for the licence fee and a vision for the renewal of the Charter. But what will win this battle, what matters most is what we put on air and on screens – of all sizes. That is the contract we have with the licence fee payer – and it is renewed, each day, by our delivery of news that’s accurate, impartial, open-minded and fair to people in the news. It is cemented when we show that we have the courage to tackle difficult stories, the intelligence to explain what it all means, and the determination to uncover what’s going on. The public value of impartial journalism has not changed. Indeed, it is needed more than ever.

But the way we create that journalism, distribute it, and engage our audiences is changing, and changing for the better. The BBC, since its founding, has always been an innovator. We will continue to be – so that, we will be part of our audiences’ lives and they, more than ever, part of ours.

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