SPEECH published on 24 Sep 2020

After the Pandemic - News in the 2020s

BBC Director of News and Current Affairs Fran Unsworth delivers the BBC Lecture at the Prix Italia on how public service media newsrooms need clarity of values to ensure they are serving all audiences in these challenging times. 

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Thank you Marcello for that kind introduction and may I say first of all how pleased I am to be here to meet some in person and others virtually.  

We live in stormy times and are all trying to navigate through them with intelligence and with good hearts and good intentions. We need each other so I thought I would share my thoughts and I welcome yours.

Like all news organisations and most companies all over the world the BBC Newsroom has had to significantly adapt to how it fulfils its role of providing badly needed accurate information and explanation to the public to help it survive a pandemic. 

Initially, there was a ‘let’s all pull together’ spirit, but in the United Kingdom as the death toll rose, hospitals became overwhelmed, and the economy tanked, the political divisions soon resurfaced.  

Those political divisions are more than even now not just focussed on  policy differences but on symbols.  We live in the so called “culture wars” and the BBC finds itself regularly accused not just of political bias, but also cultural bias.

What I want to explore today is how many actors wish to co-opt us into their side of the culture war; how increasingly hard this is to resist, but how if we don’t, we will undermine our future as universal public service media organisations, taking money from everyone. 

While nations tend to divide on left/right lines, public service news organisations can roughly divide their coverage on mathematical lines.  

I use the term ‘roughly’ advisedly. As our editorial guidelines state, due impartiality usually involves more than a simple matter of ‘balance’ between opposing viewpoints, it’s about a range of voices.

But impartiality applied to culture is harder.  

Especially when most newsrooms run very fast just to stand still.

In our job, the clock is always there. Deadlines don't just come once a day. They come every hour, sometimes many times within the hour. Our judgements are instant.

Every day of every week of every year we race to meet a deadline.

As the Red Queen put it in Alice Through the Looking-Glass: “It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that.”

The Red Queen got it right. I know what she feels like. We measure our newsroom lives in seconds.

But at the same time our jobs are timeless too.

A newsroom has to capture the moment – to have a sense of where the news is heading.

To decide, why is this story significant and not that other one? 

We aren't historians but we have to have a sense of history – a sense of what is froth and what is important; a sense of what is fleeting and what is significant

We need crystal balls.

Our ways of thinking – our thought processes - need to range across the past, present and future. And to do it with instant judgement with that accursed clock ticking towards the top of every hour.
Any newsroom that can live and thrive and serve our audiences in this difficult environment needs clear editorial direction, by which I do not mean dictatorial rule-from-top but clarity of values.

Too often though,  I think we suffer from a confusion of identity.

And let me explain why.

Newspapers have always had a stronger sense of their identity than broadcasters. They take a stance.

They can campaign. Their readers know their political leaning and know that each paper appeals to a particular part of the spectrum. By and large, they do not write for the whole country. They write for their target audience. They inform, of course – or at least the best of them do – but some of them may find more clicks from confirming views rather than enraging readers.

As a public service media organisation, the BBC can’t take positions on matters of current controversy. We take some positions, of course:  racism is abhorrent, so is misogyny; we support the rule of law and so on. Fundamental democratic principles.

Increasingly, though, in a polarised, online world, people have absolute certainty of their own beliefs. And they want us to adopt theirs. And language is increasingly their battleground. On reflection, maybe this is not new.

The conflict in the Middle East is fought not just over territory but language. Occupied territories, or disputed? Legal or illegal. Fence or wall? Terrorist or freedom fighter?

But today, as the former BBC director-general Mark Thompson has argued, “words hurtle through virtual space with infinitesimal delay.” Argument, he says, has become cruder and more polarised.
The result is “a fight to the political death, a fight in which every linguistic weapon is fair game.”

This is new. And it has consequences.The BBC is an accountable organisation. It’s right that we should be so. We are funded by the licence fee which everyone has to pay. But, boy, when I say we are accountable, are we accountable!

Back in the day, newspapers would receive letters to the editor, which might or might not get printed, and broadcasters would receive occasional complaints, invariably in green ink. Today the BBC receives a million comments a year, some three thousand a day. At least a quarter of a million are complaints. The volume has increased by nearly half over the last four years. Complaints come in the tens of thousands for items of coverage which were probably seen at time of broadcast by a fraction of the people complaining.  But  they have been picked up on social media with an encouragement to protest.  
In short, email gives our audiences democratic access to the heart of our operation. This can be a force for good. It connects our audiences to us, and us to them, and holds our feet to the fire.

But increasingly complaints are accompanied by hostility to our work and frequently to our staff who come under vicious trolling, which they should not have to accept, but which we as employers struggle to protect them from. 

It is not enough for some people that they think we have got something wrong.

No - errors – and of course they happen – are increasingly seen as the consequence of a grand conspiracy, a malign wish by the BBC to impose its biased view on the world.

As our regulator put it somewhat politely last year, in a time of political change “social media has shaped increasingly passionate debate around news coverage."

We’ve been on this path a while. The era of the internet was supposed to be the bulwark of a rational age — “the marketplace of ideas.” But that’s not what’s happened.

We appear to have moved into a “post fact age” as one New York journalist put it.

An age where opinions and lies can sometimes carry as much weight as objective facts.

An age where it is not enough to have a civilized discussion – but where battles must be won and enemies dispatched.

Recently, one of our specialist disinformation reporters posted a thread on Twitter to illustrate the level of abuse she receives. Wittily, she marked the posts out of ten.

She gave nine to the charming claim that she was “a paedophile worshipper” and a “brainless fool - I certainly hope you get what’s coming to you.”

Another read:
“What a sad little life you must lead to perpetuate the lies of the globalists. I hope they pay you well. See you in Hell.”

A third:
“Can you stop with your utter nonsense on the BBC? You are the essence of disinformation. You look pathetic and everybody with half a brain knows it. Have a good day.”

One person sent fifteen emails over a twelve-hour period including “you’re really the equivalent of Josef Goebbels aren’t you?”

Our correspondent attributes the high level of abuse she receives to a combination of radicalisation by conspiracy theories, the dis-inhibiting effect of social media, her gender, and her specialist field.

Of course, this is not unique to the BBC.

After her reports on the Istanbul protests a few years ago, the Turkish journalist Amberin Zaman was fiercely attacked on Twitter.

The messages were abusive, violent and sexual. She said "I received hundreds of tweets, using the most obscene language, threatening to kill me, threatening to rape me."

After reporting on the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris she experienced another mass attack on Twitter that she likened to a public lynching.

Some of this is from individuals but it is also from people forming wider groups on social media.

It would be wrong to pretend that specialist interest groups have never sought to persuade the BBC that it should reflect their own agenda.

By putting pressure on us, or by trying to persuade us to see the world their way.

That, in a sense, is part of the warp and weft of journalism. It goes with the territory.

It is our job to listen, to learn, and come to our own independent judgment about what to include in our coverage, and what to leave out.

To decide what’s worth reporting, and how to do so – which words and pictures we should choose.

But there are more interest groups now, and they are better organised through their use of social media. It is very easy to get up a petition with tens of thousands of apparent signatures.

But what weight should we put on that?

The online warriors appear to be able to capture the zeitgeist or societal undercurrents more quickly than institutions, however finely attuned our journalism might be.

They move swiftly to coalesce quickly around a position – and can gain quick access to the BBC through its accountability procedures, or directly to editorial managers and staff.

They can encourage staff with a particular interest in an aspect of the news, for example from their lived experience, to seek to persuade editors that their view of the world needs to be reflected in our coverage.

Or that we should adopt the particular vocabulary they endorse.

Don’t misunderstand me.
Democracy is good.
Debate is good.
Accountability is also good.

The BBC – and any news organization - must listen and learn.

But we must all decide for ourselves what is right. In the middle of the maelstrom, we have to keep thinking clearly. We need to talk to each other and not get carried by social media bullies. I don't think that is too strong a word. Social media bullies. We must always remember that there are many more people who didn't pile on with a lynch-mob appetite.

Even when we get it wrong – and we, like all people and institutions get it wrong. It's in the nature of any fast-moving, highly creative enterprise – which, I hasten to add, the BBC is.

Ultimately, editors edit – not interest groups. They do it with intelligence and honesty and also inevitable human fallibility.

I raise this today because I think this issue has a wider resonance. I think it's really important, not just for us and our organisations but for democracy.

The problem for all of us here is to see how thin the line can be between resisting pressure to protect our independence, and being remote from how the world is moving.
If our journalism is not in touch with its roots, we will fail to recognize that members of the audience, or readers, or staff, have genuine grievances or thoughts about the world that they wish us to reflect.

But we also need to recognize the danger posed by the rise of interest groups that may have no truck with views that do not match their own.

The problem is not unique to broadcasting.

Newspapers – such as the New York Times – have faced difficulties in trying to encompass a broad range of opinion. When an op-ed writer, a political outlier on the paper, resigned, she alleged hostility inside and outside the building was crowding out dissenting opinion She said the New York Times was now being edited by Twitter. 

How in such times can a newsroom continue to serve everyone –the young and radical to the highly conservative.

How do we pick our way through the ‘TERF wars', and navigate the debate over gender and sex?   How do we respond to the debate about what the word “woman” actually means?

How do we best respond to different communities, different groups, different people, different individuals?

How do we respond to our traditional audiences who might not understand why we have a LGBT correspondent or a gender and identity correspondent?  Who believe that we are simply giving in to pressure groups and shaping the world as they see it.

How do we avoid being seen to take sides in these polarising social issues? 

I said a newsroom needed to range timelessly to have a strong sense of its identity.

But today the pace of change is so quick that the past can be a hindrance to our judgment.

Clearly we shouldn’t have to wait for statues to be toppled to realise that time are changing.

But we shouldn't assume either that the revolutionaries speak for all the people.

One recent example: tradition dictates that the last night of the Proms – our annual festival of classical music – should end with the singing of Rule Britannia and Land of Hope & Glory. This year, the BBC found itself caught in the middle of a culture war about it. For some, the tradition is redolent of empire, of colonialism and slavery, and that people would “struggle to enjoy the patriotic jingoism of these songs." But others said we should all stop our cringing embarrassment about our history. “People love our traditions and our history with all its imperfections,” they said. Tradition or jingoism? We were caught in the middle.

I believe in the idea that different opinions are valid. We may or may not disagree with them but we are not so certain of our own that we dismiss the opinions of others.  

This does not though have to be a zero sum game, in which media organisations have all the power until it is stripped away from them by special interest groups that would fashion in their own interests. 
But for our part it will require adaptability and fixity of purpose.  

Newsrooms that are not just watching the clock but are sensitive to the times.   Newsrooms which can decide  on the right editorial way forward and the right language to deploy, in a clear, calm, considered fashion. 

And which when challenged can explain their decisions quickly and responsively to both the outside world and to our own staff.

That can shrug off social media pressure and the cancel culture, and parry the unfair attacks on our honesty and intentions 

More than anything, we need newsroom leaders who are ready to reflect a broad range of thinking, who don’t always go down the same narrow, well-trodden path because it is the one they have always followed. 

But if we don’t analyse the dangers these cultural issues pose to public service broadcasters and think them through, we may look up and see to our surprise that the hands of that clock we watch all day are pointing at one minute to midnight.

Thank you very much.