Speech by James Harding, Director of BBC News and Current Affairs, to launch the Future Of News report

Date: 28.01.2015     Last updated: 28.01.2015 at 17.00
Category: News; Corporate

Thank you all for coming – and, likewise, thank you to all of you watching.

Jerry Seinfeld once said: “It's amazing that the amount of news that happens in the world everyday always just exactly fits the newspaper.”

Today, it doesn’t fit. There is more information, more readily available, more immediately, in more formats, on more devices and to many hundreds of millions more people than ever before.

And it used to be said that freedom of the press is limited to those who own one. Today, anyone with an internet connection and a Twitter account can make the news. If you choose, the powers that be are you.

So, how has the internet changed the news? Infinitely - for the better.

For anyone interested in reporting the world - finding stories, telling stories, sharing stories – it’s all become so much more possible. We are living at the most exciting time for journalism since the advent of television.

And the internet age has only just begun. By 2025, most people in the UK will likely get their television programmes over the internet. By 2030, possibly everyone will. The TV aerial will have gone the way of the typewriter.

A decade ago, people outnumbered connected devices by about 10 to one. In the last year, mobile phones outnumbered people for the first time. By 2020, there will be roughly 10 connected devices for every human being on earth. To be sure, technological change is uneven between different parts of the world, different age groups, different communities. But it is going to keep on coming. It will accelerate.

Of course, you can often end up looking silly trying to forecast the future. This exercise is not about predicting the next decade, but preparing for it. It’s also an effort conducted by journalists who know that, in the end, the future of news is the news. Dissecting journalism can be like analysing a joke. It takes the fun out of it and misses the point: whatever change is to come, our job remains to find out what’s really going on and report it.

When the BBC set out last year to consider the Future of News over the coming decade, we wanted to look not just at the BBC but at the news industry as a whole.

And this report is a two-parter: today, we try to capture the many different views of what’s happening in the world of news and current affairs and set out the thinking that will shape BBC News’ plans for the future. The second part will follow later this year, when BBC News presents detailed proposals as part of the BBC’s overall case for the renewal of the Royal Charter.

Between now and then, we will look to canvass more ideas from people in the industry, from our audiences and, as we have in drafting this report, from people in the BBC. In fact, the ideas, contributions and enthusiasm for this effort across the whole of BBC News – network, World Service, English regions and the nations – has been one of the most rewarding aspects of the Future of News project so far. Thank you to everyone who has been involved.

The willingness of other journalists, newsmakers, academics and media industry leaders to contribute time and intelligence to this effort has been overwhelming. The goodwill towards the BBC has been humbling. Time and again, we have heard the same thing: for all its faults, the BBC is unique, the most trusted, responsible and reliable news source in the world, and our biggest job in the next 10 years is not to screw it up.

And, as you’ll see when we put it up at 2pm London time, this is a digital report. It’s a mixture of films, graphics, articles, speeches, seminars, reading lists and audio clips. And it’s not meant to be the last word on the Future of News. We hope it’s a jumping off point. It’s open to contributions and comment from everyone. Indeed, what’s been most valuable so far has been listening to the voices of people across the world of news. Inky Thordar and Chris Parkinson have pulled together a 15-minute film of some of the people we have spoken to. And rather than paraphrase their points of view, we’d like you to hear from them.


The thrilling possibilities of change, though, can’t disguise the fact that change is disruptive – and difficult. As Sir Charles Dunstone, the founder of Carphone Warehouse put it, the media world used to look like Zurich; it increasingly resembles Mumbai. In this bustling environment, there is less reporting and more noise.

The internet has ripped a hole in the business model of many great news organisations. And, as a result, vast swathes of modern life are increasingly unreported or under-reported.

Take the local press. As classified and local advertising has moved online, the regional press has suffered. From the Rocky Mountain News in the US to the Reading Post in the UK, local newspapers have closed. More than 5,000 editorial jobs were cut across the regional and national press in the UK in a decade.

And this thinning out of reporters is not happening evenly. Not at all. As Andy Williams at Cardiff University’s School of Journalism has found, for example, Media Wales, owned by Trinity Mirror, had around 700 editorial and production staff in 1999; by 2011 this had been reduced to 136.

The pattern holds globally as much as it does locally. For example, international reporters working for U.S. newspapers declined 24% from 2003 to 2010. Meanwhile, others such as Russia, Qatar and China are investing billions of dollars in global news operations.

A generational change in the way we consume the news is already well under way. In Sweden, the average age of the nightly news bulletin audience on SVT – its public service broadcaster – is 66; meanwhile, a recent survey found that 26 per cent of two-year olds in Sweden are online at least once a day.

The outlines of this revolution are already clear in the UK: TV News in the UK reached 92% of over 55s every week on average last year and this has been stable over the last decade. Amongst 16-34s, this falls to 52% every week – down from 69% in 2004.

The disruption that has taken such a toll on newspapers will, in some form or other, come to TV news over the coming decade.

Who cares? People say access to the news has never been better. The BBC ran a survey recently: 76% of people agreed that it’s easier than it’s ever been to know what’s really going on in the world.

But the medium, as ever, shapes the message. Half a century ago, TV transformed the news. For millions of people, it brought it to life. But television news also put a premium on dramatic pictures, telegenic politicians and snappy soundbites.

The internet is now changing the news. For example, 59% of UK online news users said they had glanced at the news headlines online in the past week, compared to 43% who said they had read longer stories online. Emily Bell at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism has pointed out that the internet is not necessarily a neutral curator of the news. Last year, an academic experiment showed Facebook had manipulated the news feed of 700,000 users for a week, to see how seeing different types of news might affect the users’ mood. Happy posts made people more likely to be happy.

The internet is bypassing the professional reporter. Computers can do what journalists used to, namely compile the football results, produce travel news bulletins and write up company results stories. The services that used to be essential parts of the news are increasingly automated and available separately online.

And people in power are finding they can speak directly to the public without bothering with a reporter’s pesky questions. The journalist’s competitor is no longer another journalist. Often, it’s the subject of the story. Political parties, celebrities, corporations communicate directly with the public. An era of greater connectivity is not necessarily leading to more accountability.

It is an age of growing information inequality. Millions of people are online, millions are not. The world is dividing into those who seek the news and a growing number who skim it. To simplify, the information gap between younger people, poorer people and some ethnic minority groups, on the one hand, and older people, richer people and some groups of white people, on the other, is widening.

At the same time, people feel misinformed. There is ever more data, more opinion, more freedom of expression, but it’s harder to know what’s really going on. Even though people say it’s easier to get the news, they are increasingly unsure of the facts and unclear what they mean. When it comes to the detail, people’s knowledge of the key facts is astonishingly patchy, as shown by an October 2014 Ipsos MORI poll. It found, for example, that people in this country believe that nearly 24% of the working age population are unemployed (the real figure is 7%).

This is an uneven age. We see, in places, sagging enthusiasm for democracy, polarisation of opinion, disengagement from society and a crisis of citizenship.

These problems are not the fault of the news media. But journalism – particularly public service journalism – has a responsibility to address them. The news industry can help determine the kind of connected society we are.

How do we make sense of the many forces at work in shaping the future of news? Drawing on the ideas of many interviewees and the contributions of so many people across the BBC, Steve Herrmann, the editor of BBC News Online, Helen Thomas, the head of regional and local programming in Yorkshire, Tarik Kafala, the head of the BBC Arabic service and Nick Sutton, the Editor of the World at One, have tried to think through the key factors in technology, the nature of social and personal expectations of the news in both the UK and around the world and what those things might mean for the way we find, tell and share stories. Here’s a film that runs for about 10 minutes in which they present some of their key findings.


So, what does all this mean for BBC News?

In the internet age, the BBC is more necessary and valuable than ever. The internet is not keeping everyone informed, nor will it: it is, in fact, magnifying problems of information inequality, misinformation, polarisation and disengagement. Our job, though, is to keep everyone informed. And to do so, the BBC is going to have to grapple with some big strategic choices.

BBC News is going to have to start thinking how it is going to deliver on its mission to inform beyond broadcasting.

Over the course of the next decade, the majority of people will get the BBC’s news over the internet. This is not just a matter for the engineers. The internet will not just mean delivering TV and radio news over a different distribution platform. It will change how people get the news, what they expect of it and what they want from the BBC.

It will force the BBC to rethink its allocation of resources. It will require us to accelerate investment in digital news services. It will force us to reconsider how we measure what we do. And it will prompt us to weigh how best we reach people - how we change the mix of digital, radio and television services to ensure people can always be in touch with what’s happening. Our task is to keep everyone informed - nationally, locally, globally. To do so will require an appetite for reinvention.

Globally, it needs to make the most of the BBC’s unique reach in world news – we all have to decide what we want to do with the World Service, whether it wants a strategy for growth or managed marginalisation.

If the UK wants the BBC to remain valued and respected, an ambassador of Britain’s values and an agent of soft power in the world, then the BBC is going to have to commit to growing the World Service and the government will also have to recognise this. It will mean reversing the trend of closing language services and, with an eye to audiences of need, opening new ones. It will mean taking greater advantage of our strength in English as a global language.

In many parts of the world, there is not more free expression but less. Some democracies are proving to be pseudo-democracies. The need for the BBC World Service – in English and in the languages of audiences around the world – to provide independent, reliable information to people who sorely need it is growing. And a stronger World Service will also enable the BBC to improve its overseas news coverage for UK audiences.

In the UK, devolution and the decline of the regional press is creating a real need for local news coverage, a democratic deficit.

What’s happening where you live and work remains your first concern in the news. The BBC has to serve local audiences; it has to provide the information they need and keep a check on those in power. In a more devolved country – in the increasingly devolved four nations of the UK - news in some parts of the country will simply not apply in others. And, while there may be more community bloggers and citizen journalists, there are fewer professional reporters covering local news. The economic issues facing the newspaper business are not of the BBC’s making, nor will they be alleviated by the BBC standing aside. If the UK is to function as a devolved democracy in each of its cities, regions and nations, it needs stronger local news, regional news and news services for Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

And the BBC has always innovated in news. The opportunities of the New Journalism are plain to see.

Data journalism will offer new means of holding public services, politicians and powerful organisations to account; the quantified self offers new possibilities of providing news that is relevant to you. Personalised news services will mean a new approach to reporting and editing. And engaging our viewers, listeners and users so that we have a genuinely activated audience means turning large parts of the news into something you do, rather than just something you get.

The BBC is the most important news provider for the whole of the UK. Its bulletins, programmes and discussions must continue to reflect and examine the country. And, just as the BBC has redefined the news for Britain first on radio, then on television and more recently online, it now has the opportunity to do so again.

The real story

In the internet age, the BBC’s job is to be the place people come for the real story. What really matters. What’s really going on. What it really means.

To provide the real story, we have to be uncompromising about our journalistic values: accuracy, impartiality, diversity of opinion, fair treatment of people in the news and public service. And we have to be clear about the way we work. We’re about quality, not quantity. Openness. Universality. And independence.

For, in a democracy, news is the essential public service. Government by the people cannot function without it.

Nobody has put this better than Thomas Jefferson. In 1787, he wrote: “The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them.”

The job of the news is to keep everyone informed - to enable us to be better citizens, equipped with what we need to know. In the exciting, uneven and noisy internet age, the need for news – accurate and fair, insightful and independent - is greater than ever.