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Nick Robinson’s Steve Hewlett Memorial Lecture: We need to ‘re-make the case for impartiality’ in the news media

By Nick Robinson

BBC Today programme presenter Nick Robinson delivered the inaugural Steve Hewlett Memorial Lecture last night. An edited version of his speech appears below (not checked against delivery).

I am honoured to be asked to deliver this the first annual Steve Hewlett Memorial Lecture.

Steve’s death was news – national news – which, had he been here to see it would have produced one of those characteristically laconic Hewlett chuckles.

“To cut a long story short” was one of Steve’s catchphrases.

His tales from the medical frontline – many of his tales – were, of course, anything but short and could, of course, be all too painful to listen to. Few would have imagined that they would be a recipe for broadcasting gold. Except, perhaps, for Steve.

They were one last reminder of his sixth sense which meant he knew, he just knew, the stories that would engage an audience and, boy, did he know how to tell them.

It was something I saw from the moment I first met him. I was as establishment as you could get – a BBC trainee straight out of university who’d been schooled at the Oxford Union debating society.

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Steve, on the other hand, carried the aura of radical chic which came from his time at the new and positively daring Channel 4 where, it was said, he’d made a film giving a Marxist interpretation of cricket – combining two of his greatest passions.

Years later, he would become editor of Panorama and inherit me as his deputy.

We accidentally made history together – and not in the way we would have liked – by becoming the first ever programme to have an interview with the Prime Minister blocked from transmission by a court ruling.

“Cutting a long story short” it involved me falling out with a certain Alex Salmond for the first but certainly not for the last time.

Steve could have blamed me. But he backed me. It’s what great editors do but it is something they can only do if like Steve, they are rigorous in their approach to the facts, open minded to the views of their critics and brave enough to take editorial risks and to defend their team when they do

What brought us closer, though, was our shared experience of cancer. When I was recovering from the surgery which successfully removed my tumour but robbed me of my voice, Steve reassured me and wrote in the Radio Times that the audience would get used to my new throaty sound.

When he told me about his diagnosis I wrote him a beginners guide on how to cope with chemotherapy. I still fondly recall the marathon cancer chat we had during a more than two hour drive from my home in London to the University of Essex to help open their new Journalism course.

When I finally arrived and got Steve off the phone I realised I’d forgotten to talk to about what I called him in the first place to discuss – journalism.

Tonight I’m determined not to repeat that mistake.

More and more people access news on their smartphones – almost a half whilst in bed, a little fewer on the bus or train and a third whilst on the loo (Reuters Digital News Report, 2017). No wonder those same 16-24 year olds are watching less than half an hour of TV news a week – a fall of third in under five years (Ofcom News Consumption Report, 2016).

To summarise, let me quote one of the bosses of one of those corporate giants who pose the greatest challenge to the old ways of doing things – the head of Google News – Richard Gingras who I met a week or two back in Silicon Valley. He, bear in mind, is a veteran journalist who’s had ink on his fingers, not a teenage techie.

“We came from an era of dominant news organizations, often perceived as oracles of fact. We’ve moved to a marketplace where quality journalism competes on equal footing with raucous opinion, passionate advocacy, and the masquerading expression of variously-motivated bad actors.”

Gingras points out what is, perhaps, the key challenge posed by social media: “Affirmation is more satisfying than information. Always has been”

Now before I move on to what I think we should do to respond to these challenges and before anyone assumes I am in despair let’s just note that BBC News reached three-quarters of adults in the UK each week in 2016/17; more than any other news provider reached three-quarters of adults in the UK each week in 2016/17; more than any other news provider.

And we are trusted – 91 per cent of under 34s came to BBC 2017 election coverage in the week of the vote. And, if you’ll forgive me an immodest note here, record numbers are tuning in to that old veteran – the Today programme even in our sixtieth year.

But one stat I’ve learned preparing for this speech made me realise that we cannot say complacently that “the young will grow into watching or listening to BBC, after all we did.”

A stat about Facebook which – remember fellow Twitter obsessives – is really where most people get their news. BBC News has an impressive 44 million followers on the site, yet most of our stories don’t actually reach more than a tenth of that figure – four million.

The algorithms tend to favour what people like and share and people like and share things which produce an emotional reaction. So following the BBC doesn’t put it high on your news feed. You must follow it and your family and friends must choose to like or share it regularly which only happens when people think “OMG, LOL or WTF”.

But perhaps the figure that raised my eyebrows the highest was those for trust. Trust in UK media is down by 7 per cent in the latest data from the Reuters Digital News Report – way ahead of the United States, but still down.

And in one You Gov survey a while back Wikipedia entries were judged to be marginally more trusted than the BBC. Market researchers would tell you that it’s within the margin of error, but it does tell you something

What underlies this decline in trust?

It is due, I believe, to two main factors – the increased polarization of our society and our national debate and the increased use, particularly by the most committed and most partisan, of social media and alternatives to what they call MSM – the mainstream media.

One reason for that is what has happened in the world I’m more familiar with – politics. In the space of just three years the country has seen a referendum on whether to split up the UK followed by one on whether to split away from the EU, had two general elections, changed Prime Ministers, gone from having a majority government to a minority propped up the DUP and seen the unlikely rise and rise of an opposition leader who was at first regarded by himself, never mind anyone else, as having no chance of getting and no interest in having the job.

But it is not just politics that is divided. Our society is. Jon Snow spoke powerfully and movingly in his MacTaggart lecture about his encounters with the residents of Grenfell Tower. “Where were you? Why didn’t you come here before?” some shouted at him.

I had my own experience of how the news we report is seen and heard on the streets – not at Grenfell Tower – but on the streets of Finsbury Park in the early hours of June 19th. [I was in] my bedroom in Highbury in North London when I heard the scream of sirens and the insistent buzz of low flying helicopters.

I did – what so many of our listeners and viewers do now – I sleepily reached not for the radio on switch or the remote control but for my phone and went to Twitter. Just down the road police had closed off a road after a van had struck worshippers outside a mosque.

I threw on some clothes, rang the office and ran down the road where within seconds I was surrounded by a group of young Muslim men waving their mobile phones at me. They were angry – and not just because some were desperate to get beyond the blue police tape that was now blocking their route to see if family and friends were safe.

Why – they demanded to know – are you not calling it terrorism? They showed me the BBC’s report which described a “collision”. So too, in fairness, did other mainstream sites like Sky News. I tried explaining that news organisations always waited for the police to determine whether an incident was an accident, an attack or, indeed, terror.

They weren’t impressed. They thought we were on their side of those who wanted to cover up attacks on their community. They said they trusted their own media more. It is a pattern we see increasingly.

People who see themselves as not part of the establishment – whether young Muslims, Scottish Nationalists or UKIP-ers, Corbynites or Greens, backers of Leave pre-referendum but, since the vote, backers of Remain – have not just complained about the coverage of what they increasingly refer to as the Mainstream Media or MSM.

They have their own alternative media sites – Wings over Scotland or Westmonster or The Canary or – in the case of the pro EU crowd – a new newspaper – the New European.

They would all be horrified to be compared with each other since what motivates them is the belief that the other lot are not just mistaken but an existential threat to the future of their country but they have and do often respond in similar ways to what they call the mainstream media

Their most shared and liked stories are attacks on the MSM and the BBC in particular for ignoring their stories or giving too much coverage to the other side. They share a certainty fuelled by living in a social media bubble that we reporters and presenters are, at best, craven – obeying some diktat from our bosses or the government – and, at worst, nakedly biased.

Some might respond to this by saying it was ever thus.

Broadcasters and the BBC in particular have been accused of bias by politicians ever since a young Winston Churchill launched an assault on the BBC for its coverage of the General Strike in 1926. You cannot, he argued, be impartial between “the fireman and the fire”.

But these times are, I believe, different.

Firstly, because the fracturing of our politics means the criticism is coming from all sides and from grassroots campaigns not just whichever of the government or opposition feels most vulnerable.

Secondly because back then the purpose of the attacks was to bully and intimidate the BBC or, occasionally, ITN into changing the way it reported a particular story or to drop this or that programme or journalist.

Our critics now see their attacks as a key part of their political strategy. In order to succeed they need to convince people not to believe “the news”. When I interviewed Paul Mason – formerly a distinguished colleague at the BBC and Channel 4 – now a hyper partisan campaigner for Jeremy Corbyn he told me “we see the media as the enemy navy, we need our own navy”.

Campaigners on the left as well as the right have been looking and listening and learning at what has happened across the pond. They know that there is method behind what some regard as the madness of The Donald’s attacks on the “failing” press as purveyors of “fake news”.

Attacks on the media are no longer a lazy clap line delivered to a party conference to the raise the morale of a crowd of the party faithful. They are part of a guerilla war being fought on social media day after day and hour after hour.

So, if, as I argue, we’d be wrong to simply ignore this challenge how should we respond to it? Once again I turn to Steve for my inspiration.

In Steve’s own words “there was a clearly defined purpose. Wherever you can find the liberal concensus probe it probe it probe it. And if there’s another way of looking at it, broadcast it”.

And broadcast it he did making the only show I’ve heard of which examined the case for restoring capital punishment.

I believe that we should do exactly what Steve proposed. Precisely how is not for me to decide. One possibility is a series, like Diverse Reports, is labelled and separate from mainstream news.

Another is a platform for opinions like Viewsnight – Newsnight’s experiment. But I doubt either will have the Heineken effect of reaching the people other news cannot normally reach.

So, my instinct is that we should build this mindset into all the programing we do so that we ask questions – and can share online items that ask questions – which are all too often not asked.

Again and again over the years views which start off being seen as extreme quickly become the new conventional wisdom. There are examples of this on both left and right and others that don’t fit neatly into the political spectrum.

The former Culture Secretary John Whittingdale, has warned that we will face sanctions and fines from OFCOM unless we end what is alleged to be our anti Brexit bias.

My response now is what it was then – back in March – when I tweeted: “Do not adjust your set. Normal service from the BBC means you will hear people you disagree with saying things you don’t like (that’s our job).”

Ever so briefly and you might think rather surprisingly I was hailed by Jeremy Corbyn’s backers as confirming their view that the BBC was biased against him. I was interviewed by Lyn Barber soon after he became Labour leader and whilst I was unwell and off work. She wrote in the Sunday Times

Was Robinson as shocked as I was by the way the BBC (and other media) rubbished Jeremy Corbyn?

“Yes,” I apparently replied – though I blame the chemotherapy I was then taking for my lack of normal caution – before adding: “Although I was off work, I did drop a note to a few people after his first weekend saying this is really interesting and we owe it to the audience to sound as if we’re interested.”

My point then was not that my colleagues weren’t treating him fairly.

They were quite properly reporting on the widespread opposition he faced in his own Shadow Cabinet and the Parliamentary Labour Party. My point was that the ideas that made Corbyn popular – whether scrapping Trident or renationalization – should be examined and interrogated in their own right and not simply as a cause of rows or splits.

It has become fashionable to argue that one of the reasons the media failed to spot political movements like the rise of Corbyn, the rise of anti EU feelings or the rise of Trump is because journalists are “too far removed from those who” they report on.

Jon Snow in his MacTaggart argued that the media was “comfortably with the elite, with little awareness, contact or connection with those not of the elite.”

Ofcom’s Chief Executive Sharon White has told broadcasters that the regulator will soon start asking them to provide more data on the social class of those they employ. The BBC’s James Purnell has said that the Corporation is considering introducing targets.

Once again I think back to my experience with Steve. We first met when I was a trainee TV producer working on Brass Tacks, a BBC current-affairs programme based in Manchester. In Manchester note. I was from the area. He’d been a student there. We – it – had a different perspective from people at TV Centre.

Our team included a former merchant seaman with a broad Scouse accent and arms covered in tattoos. I have worked with few like him in TV since.

When I was Political Editor I often felt the best-known member of my team was Paul Lambert – or ‘Gobby’, as everyone called him. He was the man who stood in Downing Street shouting questions at those going in or coming out of Number 10.

He didn’t speak with the rootless received pronunciation of all many in broadcasting but in the Estuary English used by millions.

When I moved to Today programme someone – who will remain nameless – suggested that I should become the programme’s Northern voice. Proud though I am of being a boy from the North West and willing though I am to bang on about Manchester and Unite in particular I had to gently point out that I’d lived for longer in North London than the North of England.

However, this boy from the right side of the tracks – from what used to be called the Cheshire stockbroker belt – loves nothing more than getting out of his comfort zone.

A few years back I made a documentary called “The Truth about immigration” which pointed out what I thought was obvious, but others seemed to regard as controversial.

To the young, the well off and those working in the big cities immigration often represented a cultural diversity to be relished, a better choice of local food shops and take always and, yes, a cheap cleaner, builder or, even, nanny.

But to other people it represented an unsettling change in the area they’d grown up in – an over crowded GP waiting room or queue to get into the local school and competition for both jobs and wages.

Hearing both those attitudes is what represents diversity of thinking – it also represents BBC impartiality.

It involves not just who we employ but how we do our jobs. We should get out more, we should study the polls with more not less intensity and we should look for underlying trends.

That does not mean extending still further the fatuous vox poppery that is a substitute for a serious examination of voter attitudes. Filming on a high street until you have obtained clips of contradictory opinions tells the viewer next to nothing.

And the target I’d much rather explore is one that challenges us to engage more people from the groups that we currently struggle to reach.

I suspect the biggest cause of viewers and listeners feeling any broadcaster is biased is their sense that they are not hearing views from people like themselves. Quite naturally, they assume that the reason they don’t is that their views are deemed unacceptable.

A survey carried out for the BBC more than a decade ago in 2006 found that more than half of respondents thought broadcasters often failed to reflect the views of ‘people like me’. Those most likely to say this were middle-aged ‘C2Des – those without access to the internet and those with least interest in news and current affairs.

I’m not aware of a more up to date survey but I fear it would not be that different today.

When I joined the BBC back in the mid eighties News and Current Affairs, as it was then called, was split between two factions who were at war with themselves. The ‘Birtists’ – disciples of his ‘mission to explain’, which insisted that analysis had to come before the demands of good pictures or compelling storytelling and the BBC old guard he’d been hired to tame.

I had been recruited by the old BBC but soon found myself adopted and promoted by the Birtists. I remain an unapologetic cheerleader for his view that knowledge and expertise are critical to good reporting. The specialist editors at the BBC which have now spread to ITV and Sky are his legacy.

But I propose that it is now time to add a Mission to engage alongside Birt’s Mission to explain, i.e. to reach out to those who currently do not make the BBC their first choice either because they do not treat news bulletins and current affairs programmes as “appointments to view” and consume an increasing part of their news via social media or because they are convinced that we are part of the MSM.

Underpinning all that I have proposed it will be necessary to re-make the case for impartiality.

Too many of my generation now treat it like the weather – as a natural phenomenon rather than understanding that it is an artificial legal requirement which could easily be reversed if viewers, listeners and readers stop believing in it.

There is a danger that a growing number will question whether impartiality still has any real meaning, whether it is an establishment plot to limit debate and whether it can be sustained in an era of almost infinite media choice.

There is still a powerful case for impartial journalism which seeks to inform rather than influence or sway or respond to commercial imperatives.

For decades the worlds of impartial and partial journalism have been separate. Broadcasting offered one, print the other. You could have news, or news plus views. Now, though, these worlds have converged.

On my TV and my ipad BBC and Sky ‘impartial’ news channels co-exist with news-and-views channels from America, the Qatari-based Al Jazeera and English-language news services funded by the Chinese, Russian, French and Iranian governments. And that’s just in English

Fox News is disappearing from British homes but RT [Russia Today] – which in many ways is its left wing equivalent – is increasingly popular here. It is funded by and run from Moscow.

It doesn’t just promote the Kremlin’s views on issues such as the Ukraine or Syria it encourages political forces it believes will weaken its enemies – the governments of the West.

RT has had more Ofcom rulings against it than any other news network. In my view it should not be treated with a lighter touch simply because it has a small – albeit growing – audience.

All this leads some to argue that TV news should go the way of print. It should be free of controls and customers should pick the product that suits them best.

Rupert Murdoch’s son James, when he was still chairman of BSkyB in his Mactaggart lecture launched an all-out assault on a system of regulation which he described as ‘authoritarianism’.

He said: “How, in an all-media marketplace, can we justify this degree of control in one place and not in others? The effect of the system is not to curb bias – bias is present in all news media – but simply to disguise it. We should be honest about this: it is an impingement on freedom of speech and on the right of people to choose what kind of news to watch.”

Mark Thompson argued when he the BBC’s director general that “in the future maybe there should be a broad range of choices. Why shouldn’t the public be able to see and hear, as well as read, a range of opinionated journalism and then make up their own mind what they think about it?”

I wonder now that he is at the “failing…fake news” New York Times he still feels quite as sanguine. I don’t.

I believe that we should not rely on our past and our record day to day to make our case – important though they are.

We should tell our audience that the BBC is not owned, run or controlled by the government, media tycoons, profit seeking businesses or those pursuing a political or partisan agenda

It is staffed by people who regardless of their personal background or private views are committed to getting as close to the truth as they can and to offering their audience a free, open and broad debate about the issues confronting the country.

They will always seek to broadcast what they know, be open about what they don’t and ready to admit when they get things wrong…to deliver what Carl Bernstein calls ‘the best obtainable version of the truth.’

So, how do we do more to be seen to broadcast the best obtainable version of the truth?

Let’s go back to my experience in Finsbury Park when I believe we should have been clearer about why we weren’t instantly using the language that those following the story closest were.

I make no criticism of the tiny handful of people working in the newsroom that night. This story was far from unique. The explosion which rocked the Manchester Arena was called just that – an explosion for some time before it was called terrorism. Caution in these situations is right. The BBC will rather not be the first for news if it earns the joke slogan “Not wrong for long.”

But – and it is a big but – it taught me that we should be much more open and explicit about what we know and what we don’t and how and why we do what we do. An off the shelf line or two which explained how and when we decide to call things terror attacks could have been added to the initial reports.

My bosses will not thank me for this and they may fear that it will produce even more complaints than we get now but I urge them to widen this approach further by, for example, translating the next set of Producers Guidelines – the BBC bureaucracy’s bible of editorial standards – into fluent human that can be tweeted, blogged, broadcast …it doesn’t really matter which in real time as stories are reported.

I have seen the costly, wasteful, debilitating hours that are spent parsing this or that phrase into how to answer a complaint about an item that was broadcasts weeks if not months earlier. Let’s move more quickly…show our workings more…confidently assert why we’re doing what we’re doing or, when necessary, admit a mistake swiftly and move on.

Let’s not leave the editorial debate we had on the metaphorical cutting room floor along with the footage we didn’t use but pin at least some of it up and then – when complaints do follow – point to what we said and did at the time.

Despite all the turbulence I’ve described and we’re all familiar with I am confident about the future. It’s thanks to the success of the programme which sixty years almost became known as “listen whilst you dress” or “background to shaving”.

In the year I joined the BBC the Today programme, as it became known, was threatened – or so we were told – by the arrival of another American import. After nylons, Mars bars and burgers came breakfast television.

Frank and Selina on the BBC’s sofa – the so-called “famous five” including  Parki, Anna and Frostie on TVAM would, once and for all, knock Today off its perch. But Today survived and, what’s more it thrived – trouncing breakfast TV – securing double the audience of the TV sofas.

And in this the era of Twitter and Facebook, podcasts and downshifting, viewing on your ipad, on the loo as well as in your sitting room it has a record listenership

The reason? Because, at its best, Today tells the audience what they need to know in a way they understand hearing not just from political and business leaders but also from the best and the brightest in science, the arts, religion and, yes, fashion – one of Britain’s most successful industries.

It broadcasts too – and must in my view hear more – the experiences of ordinary folk with stories to tell not, I stress, the two a penny opinions of the TV vox pop or radio phone in.

It succeeds not because it necessarily makes people go “OMG” or “LOL” or “WTF” – although hopefully we do do that often enough. It succeeds because it passes what Steve used to call the “my mum” test.

I hope I am not patronizing his mum Vera or, indeed, mine too much when I say that it is the best test of our journalism – whether it would seem relevant, comprehensible and engaging to our mums, our dads, our brothers or sisters – indeed anyone of any age or gender or background who is not a news junkie or political trainspotter.

In a world in which there is ever more information but it gets ever harder to reach the people you want to reach our challenge is to engage people we could once take for granted.

It is that mission which – along with the Steve Hewlett scholarship – would be a fitting testimony to Steve.

Picture: BBC/Steve Brown

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