Tony Hall's speech at News Xchange 2018

Speech by Tony Hall, BBC Director-General, to News Xchange 2018 in Edinburgh.

Published: 14 November 2018

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Good morning.

It’s great to be here to start what I hope will be 48 hours of debate about the future of news.

I want to begin today not with the big picture but with a small one. And here it is.

That was Earl Marchant, a single parent from Manchester, a couple of hundred miles south of here. He lost his job ten years ago - in the teeth of the financial crisis.

We put him at the heart of our tenth anniversary coverage of the crisis just recently. Coverage that also included long reads, digital videos, short explainers - as well as the more recognisable pieces on radio and television.

I’ve chosen that clip because it says something quite simple but important about our journalism, because our job - as it always has been - is to put Earl Marchant first. By that I mean put the audience first.

How does he, and millions of people like him, make sense of a world which he’s often told is in chaos a world which can feel polarised, noisy and full of misinformation?

I believe our role is straightforward. To fulfil our responsibility to Earl. To the audience.

But to do that we need to look carefully in the mirror. We know just how many challenges we have to navigate in fact, given our unique purpose, we have a duty to navigate.

The big shifts

So what are those challenges?

The world is interconnected and complicated. Information moves fast whether it’s true or false. Or - and isn’t this the hardest - somewhere in between.

At the same time, the world is alive with activism and aggression, and a sense that if you do not agree with someone else you are their enemy. And what happens if that enemy is powerful? A government or those who enforce the law. Are you then the enemy of authority? It can feel like our profession - right now - is under siege. And we should not feel like that.

There cannot be a more important issue for us as journalists - the ability to report without fear of reprisal. We cannot lose that, as we’ve seen the threat is growing and the consequences are brutal.

Some of our colleagues have died simply for being journalists - for doing their job. It’s happening all too often across the world - and for us in the European Broadcasting Union - it’s happening close to home.

We have become far too used to the targeting and killing of journalists in Mexico, or in Afghanistan, or during the war in Syria. And we’ve recently seen the fatal shootings of five colleagues at the Capital Gazette in Annapolis.

But look at what’s been happening here in Europe too. We’ve seen the targeted killings of investigative journalists - like Daphne Caruana in Malta and Ján Kuciak in Slovakia - both shot dead when they were exposing corruption in their countries. It is hard to remember a time in which journalists across the world have been deliberately targeted in the way they are today.

The fact that is happening is utterly shameful. It’s unacceptable.

But, of course, our colleagues face less extreme violence too. Every day we see aggression, almost a campaign to denigrate our craft.

On Twitter there are constant anonymous threats to journalists simply reporting on opinions that some people might not want to hear.

Some of the material that journalists have had to face is - quite frankly - disgraceful. It is an attempt to intimidate people and stop them doing their jobs.

For the sake of all journalists - we need to defend our role - seeking out the facts, no matter how inconvenient they may be for others. Because journalism matters - whether you’re in broadcasting, in the press or working online.

Whether (in this country) you are The Mail or the Mirror, the Sun or the Guardian, The Times or the Telegraph, the Express or the Independent - we are all in this together. We’re an essential part of society. We all matter.

And we need to stand together on this. If there are ways we can work together to defend journalism, the BBC stands ready to work with others across the industry to do just that. But I believe public service journalism has a unique role in the mix.

We’re not in the business of one sided arguments. Our core value is impartiality - a fair reflection of the world as we understand it. In an era of dispute it is one of our most precious assets. And the big question for us, given our role, is how we best serve our audiences.

Have we done enough to tell stories in ways they want? Not top down, broadcasting at. But horizontally - broadcasting with. What our younger audiences tell us is that they want a conversation - where opinions are given a fair hearing. They want our journalism to illuminate, to enable them to make their own decisions.

I want to lay out how we at the BBC want to respond to those big shifts - and specifically the way they relate to us, public service journalists.

First let’s talk about the BBC agenda

I want our journalists to tackle fake news - or what we should more properly call misinformation - wherever they find it.

I think this clip helps to explain how - in one very telling example. This is a story from Cameroon, an investigation by our Africa Eye team. Two young women and their children were taken away by a group of Cameroonian soldiers and killed. That it even happened where it did was disputed, by no less than the government. "Fake news", they said. But our journalists proved them wrong.

And it was a new type of journalism - of course you have to start with expert reporters, vital, who uncovered the facts. But they were helped by a deep understanding of how to use new tools such as geo-location data and imagery. This is a different style of story-telling. That’s the sort of journalism we back. It takes time. It requires skill. It requires resources. It requires a commitment to uncovering what is real and what is not.

Because what this story did was not just show you what happened, it explained how - and why.

And we want to do more. So, from early next year we’ll be training more journalists in the art of open source media - working with others to mine data to get to stories we otherwise couldn’t cover. People trust us to get to the facts - we need to build on that.

My second point also concerns our agenda - and it’s this: explanation is key

Whether it’s the US mid-terms, or Brexit, we must aim to report what has happened, but also to explain why it’s happened and why it matters.

That - in essence - is public service journalism. It should run through our DNA. It’s a vital part of our role. Without context, without explanation, everything can seem random, confusing - even overwhelming. And if the world seems that way no wonder many people find it hard to engage or feel they don’t want to.

It’s impossible to make connections. It all becomes white noise. That’s why it is so important for us to offer insight as well as headline. Our audiences expect nothing less.

They tell us they want the sharp piece of news, that bullet point. But they also want to be able to go deeper into subjects, at a time of their choosing. So our approach is becoming more layered - made up of three clear elements:

  • What just happened?
  • What it means
  • The context and the detail

I’ll give you a statistic that may surprise you… on the anniversary of the financial crisis - the most read piece online was a 5,000 word article on why it happened, what has been done about it and why it still matters. That shows that audiences want more than the sound bite. They want detail.

In short, explaining the news is as important as reporting the news.

Third, I want us to enable audiences to judge who’s telling the truth

Reality Check is our team investigating claims and counter claims, getting to the facts - and seeing through the bluster. It’s doing a great job, but I want more.

I want it to become central to our daily journalism - so that the analysis is relevant and immediate. I think it’s an essential tool for audiences on every big story we do. And of course we are helped in this push for context by the technology around us. There’s so much information out there - a flourishing world of facts and figures - and our job is to collect, curate, and make them available to our viewers, our listeners, our readers.

Let’s embrace data. Here’s an example: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-41483322

This idea came from our expert reporters - to tackle one of the subjects that we know our audiences care most about - their health. It uses statistics to inform.

It tells you exactly how your local hospital is performing. Without it you’d struggle to find the data never mind understand it. The value of the service it’s providing was recognised by the Royal Television Society this year - and by millions of people who’ve used it. It creates a different kind of relationship with our audiences - a much more personal one. You know what? This news is actually useful to me!

My fourth point is specialism

First-hand knowledge matters - journalists on the ground matter. It makes a huge difference to the authenticity of what we do. It leads to better journalism. You have local knowledge; you know people.

We have experts in our BBC service, Monitoring, constantly looking at who’s saying what across the globe working out where opinion - or downright lies - are dressed up and masked as fact. We have specialists on all the big issues we face - politics, economics, technology, science, education all aspects of our lives. Journalists who know their business backwards. People who are able to judge what’s important - and communicate that - in a world where so much is challenged.

And one of the BBC’s great strengths is that our expertise exists in many different parts of the organisation. What was one of the biggest stories last year? Plastics in our oceans. Who broke that story? Sir David Attenborough. Who produced it? Our natural history team in Bristol. But it’s still news.

The impact those programmes had on audiences of all ages tells us how engaged people are - and want to be - with what’s important. That tells us something else about our journalism.

Often, quite rightly, news is about conflict, argument, clashes of people and ideas. But I think there should be times when we step back from that, and report on solutions. We shouldn’t always just stop at the problem - we need to show much more what’s being done - and what the choices are.  Plastic is a problem. But there are people working on how to fix it.

Last weekend I even read about someone turning waste plastic into poppies - on our web site. People want to know there are answers too.

And my final point is about who we employ

News organisations should, in my view, have people from all sorts of different backgrounds arguing about what is news, what stories should be covered, and how they should be covered.

That’s why we must ensure we promote the full range of talents, regardless of gender, ethnicity, or social background - or whether they’re disabled.

We’re stronger as journalists if we make sure all voices are heard in what we do. That’s true of all news organisations, big or small, global or local.

At the BBC, we’re promoting that culture within our organisation - an organisation that I want to look and feel like the audiences we serve. I don’t want people who simply fit in. I want people who change our tone, the stories we cover.

This improves our journalism. What a strength we have in Nawal Al-Maghafi from the Yemen. Anne Soy based in Nairobi. Shingai Nyoka based in Harare. Specialists who have made a difference to how we report the world - both globally and back here in Britain.

It’s the stories they choose - and it’s the tone as well. A conversation, horizontal, broadcasting with.

Working in partnership

We’re all here today because we care deeply about the future of journalism.

What unites us should not be a shared sense of threat, but a shared sense of values. That’s why, when I was asked to take on the Presidency of the EBU alongside the day job, I didn’t hesitate!

I haven’t started yet... but I feel there’s much more we can do to champion those values together. To share ideas. Technology. And talent.

At a time where resources for original journalism can be thin on the ground, the need for us to work together has never been greater.

We have a long history together - the EBU’s been sharing news content every day since 1962. And there’s plenty going on among all the members. The investigative journalism network for instance brings EBU specialists together - to produce stories none of us could do alone.

We want to work with others. Our World Service - just this week - has done two amazing events on the challenges of fake news in Delhi and Nairobi - alongside Google, Twitter and Facebook. The audience research they’ve done - which some of the social media companies co-funded - is illuminating for all of us and our audiences.

Because what it shows is that young people want to understand the world around them. They want to see their worlds reflected in our journalism.

That’s why it’s so great to see 50 journalism students join us today from across the world. I hope you’ll find time to talk with them.

We’re also launching BBC Young Reporter here in Edinburgh this morning - aiming to give thousands of 11-18 year olds the media skills that will help them distinguish a fact - from a fiction.

Again, we can only do this working with others in our industry, in education, in charities and in government.

Let’s do more… that can be our legacy. Our gift to the next generation.

Our role is more important than ever

The examples I gave - the financial crisis; Africa Eye; your health - show why our role collectively is more important than ever and how much we can do for audiences - whether it’s to explain the big global trends, whether it’s to get to the truth and give a voice to people too easily ignored, whether it’s to give you news that’s local - and valuable to you.

To help you make up your own mind. And that is what we are aiming to do the world over bringing reliable, trustworthy information to parts of the world where the outpourings of the official media can’t be trusted. Places where there is a hunger for real news - not fake news or propaganda.

Conclusion

Don’t let anyone tell you our long, honourable trade is no longer fit for purpose. I have huge confidence in our future. The big picture is a simple one: the public believes in public service journalism.

There’s never been a more important time to be a journalist. There’s never been a time when our audiences need us more. We all have the right to be able to access information we can trust - because it’s only by being informed that we can make effective choices.

As journalists, our role is to empower people - to enable them to make up their own minds. We must help counter threats to democracy globally challenging the scourge of disinformation and fake news - and holding those who produce it to account.

It’s the struggle of our time. A battle we have to win. I believe all of us who believe in the principles of public service have a responsibility to stand together. To fight for the integrity of news.

Thank you.

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