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There will always be a need for good journalism, and BBC is an important part of that

Posted on 21 January 2016 | 6:01am

I am in Holland today, speaking at an event for the Dutch media organised by the national broadcaster, NOS. The speech is below. Some of it will be familiar to regular readers, some of it less so, as they asked me to give an assessment of the media today and where it might be heading. Given they were the national broadcaster, I found myself thinking about our own, the BBC, and the current debate around its future. Despite my run-ins and differences at the time, I found myself coming out strongly in support of it, and also more confident than I thought I would be about the future of journalism once the changes driven by the next generation have come through. Hope you enjoy it.

The media is a fascinating landscape right now. On the one hand some of the biggest industrial, social, commercial, cultural success stories are in media – Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, Google, Netflix; Apple even can be seen as media in that it is partly the new media landscape that has created the need and the drive for its products, and vice versa.

So the media consumption most of us grew up with – a daily paper, a weekly paper, a monthly magazine, a nightly look at the TV news – has changed beyond recognition. The pace of change is such that even the wisest futurologists would struggle to predict how the media landscape will look in five, ten, let alone fifty years.

A student said to me the other day, ‘you like a good fight, you must have loved Twitter as a Downing Street spokesman.’ Twitter didn’t exist when I LEFT Downing Street, let alone when I started. Another extraordinary stat – Youtube has more video content uploaded every month than the three main US Networks combined broadcast in their first sixty years of existence.

And how is this for something to indicate the pace of change…?

It took the telephone 75 years to go from invention to use by 50 million people.

It took the radio 38 years to reach 50 million.

It took the web four years.

It took the Angry Birds Space App 35 days.

No wonder then that the so-called traditional parts of the so-called mainstream media are feeling at times troubled, overwhelmed, in a state of crisis even.

My definition of crisis is an event or situation which threatens to destroy you unless the right decisions are taken. And of course in a world changing so fast, we do not have the same control we used to over all the decisions that affect us.

So for a lot of traditional mainstream media outlets, it does feel like crisis. Because it feels, and to some extent it is, existential.

In the Netherlands you have seven national newspapers with paid subscriptions: Volkskrant, Telegraaf, Trouw, Parool, NRC Handelsblad, Algemeen Dagblad, Financieel Dagblad; about two dozen regional newspapers and a few local newspapers. In 2007 seven out of ten Dutch people were still reading a newspaper, and half of you had a paid subscription. In 2000 63% had a paid subscription, in 2014 only 36%. On that trend, the figure will be zero in the year 2023. Some of these titles will go, but will they all? I don’t think so.

In a crisis, what is the thing that will best get you through it? What is the rock you cling to? It is not enough to say, we have always been good at what we do, we can keep doing it, and we will be fine. Because when the waves of change lap around so fast, eventually they wash over you so often they can wipe you away.

So the rock has to be built not just on what you do, but on the values and the fundamentals, all allied to an understanding of the change, and an ability to adapt, and to devise a strategy that will help guide you through.

Last year I published a book, Winners and How They Succeed, looking at winners in sport, politics and business, what those three fields can learn from each other and what all of us can learn from the winners within them. It covered the media only briefly. But the lessons can apply to the themes of your anniversary conference.

For me, strategy is key. And understanding that strategy does not operate in a vacuum. You must control the weather where you can, but adapt where you cannot. And the media world today is changing so fast that the marriage of strategy and adaptability is one of the toughest challenges to meet. Strategy, all about clarity and consistency. Adaptability, all about change.

You are the BBC of Holland. And like the BBC, probably feeling a little nervous about where you fit in this landscape, what the future holds, how a younger generation’s news and media consumption habits may force you to change your broadcasting habits. Because in this world of change, no organisations or institutions will be exempt.

Growing up in the UK, I could point to things like the National Health Service, the BBC, the Church of England, the Monarchy, the Football League, as bodies so entrenched in our national life, they would always be there.

Indeed they are still there. But there is a difference: back then I would have said they would be with us forever, no question. Now I cannot be so sure. The NHS is changing fast amid demographic and political change. I fear for its future as a service where all can get good treatment regardless of ability to pay. The Churches are in decline, just two per cent now regularly attend a Church of England service, and in any event we are like you a much more multiracial, multicultural nation than we were. Football has changed so much too, not least because of the media exposure, and with it a control in the game for TV and for agents, and vast fortunes for top players, beyond anything we knew or ever imagined likely when growing up wanting to be footballers.

My first ever letter of complaint to the BBC was as a child living in the North, asking why they only ever showed Queen’s Park Rangers on the Saturday night news bulletins. The answer was that the QPR ground was near the BBC TV Centre in Shepherd’s Bush. They could film the first half, bike it round to the station, put a clip on the news. Today, on Sky Sports, there is a programme called Goals Express which shows you every goal in every game in the top four divisions of England within just over an hour of the games being over. Fantastic TV, but what a change. And also, our print media, far from vanishing because of this challenge, now does more on football than ever, every game getting some kind of coverage in the tabloids.

As for the Monarchy, I hope nobody takes offence given the Royal presence later on, but I am something of a Republican, though one who profiled the Queen in my book as an enduring British winner, someone who has navigated these waves of change remarkably well. The Monarchy has had its moments in recent decades, but is in good shape.

But the BBC is in less good shape, and feels less unassailable than Her Maj.

I had some pretty big run-ins with the BBC, the most high profile of which was a dispute over a single radio report about the build up to the war in Iraq, a controversy which led to a man’s suicide, a public inquiry, and the resignations of the BBC’s chairman and director general. It was a crisis of sorts for them, and also a point at which I really knew for sure I had had enough of the job of being the meat in the sandwich between government and media which is a fascinating place to be, but exhausting, and a job that requires 24/7 attention. I was always amazed – I don’t know if it is still the case today – that my Dutch opposite number did the job both for the PM and for the Queen. I am not sure, even with my flattering profile of her, if our Queen would have had me!

But though the emotions at the time were very real, and my anger at the BBC reporting and the way they handled our complaint was intense, I am far from being an enemy of the BBC. I still think, as I did when a journalist, that it is one of the best things about Britain, and that it is a big part of our remarkable cultural heft as a country. Very few countries have a brand that is quite so strong and quite so trusted around the world. And that has happened because it has applied, blips like the one that led to the crisis of 2003 notwithstanding, real and enduring values but in a world of change. Back to my basic point about how to strategise and adapt simultaneously.

Of course any organization as big and as important, with so many different moving parts, will never be perfect. It will attract bad journalists amid the many good. It will have faults. It will make mistakes. But the BBC is a positive force. Its reputation and its future are worth defending and protecting. And I find it odd that our current government seems so determined to undermine it and turn it into something very different to what it is.

A global icon in a global race. The creative envy of the world. The World Service an authority the world over. The iPlayer one of the UK’s most loved brands. The first place millions go for news when we need it.

There will be those in the UK who, given the background of that particularly bitter dispute, will explode onto twitter with the usual abuse if they hear I am standing here setting myself up as a defender of the BBC, but I am.

I suspect the Government senses an opportunity to weaken the BBC by attacking it at a strategic level in a way they never would have done when I was there with Tony Blair, or even when Margaret Thatcher was not averse to occasional scare tactics about their future. And I cannot for the life of me work out why they are so determined to change the BBC so much. Although I could guess.

I suspect, though, that the Government will realise, almost certainly at the last minute (no strategy, all tactics is their byword), that the public will defend one of their greatest institutions to any threat to its independence or its future. But it is a lesson to you that the future needs protecting through strategy and constant adaptation.

I mentioned trust. And of course trust is something that all organisations are struggling with. But here too, it is not all doom and gloom.

A friend of mine works in film and showbiz PR. He says that in the old days, a few years ago, a film with a big promotion budget, and a couple of mega-names doing the chat shows, would be guaranteed three big pay days, first Friday, first Saturday, first Sunday. But now… the film lives or dies on the first Friday, on the social media reaction as people leave the cinemas, get on their phones, and tell their ‘friends.’

To me, the success of Facebook is the concept of the friend. In an era where deference has gone, where trust in institutions has diminished, be that governments and parties, banks and brands, the church, the media, people still need to have someone or something to trust. So who? For most, it is friends and family. Think how many conversations we have had throughout our lives, about films and books or places or restaurants we liked or disliked. But whereas once we might tell a handful of friends in the pub or at the school gates, now we can tell hundreds, thousands, between us we tell millions.

This is like a huge, uncontrollable modern technological equivalent of old word of mouth village squares where people went to socialize, find out who was well, who was ill, who liked what, who liked whom, who’d had a baby, who was getting married, who had died. So now, as people pour out of the cinemas on that first Friday, the film’s backers scour the social networks, and know immediately if they have a hit or a flop on their hands. If it’s the latter, they don’t even get a decent first Saturday.

So for media organisations, and especially for you, the national broadcaster, what does all this mean, for your brand? First, I would say, you should think of yourself as a brand. Do not be ashamed of that as a word or as a concept. Reputation is the most important currency of all, and whether a national organization, a country, a town, a public service, a supermarket, a rock band, a well-known individual within a given community, reputation depends on what instinctive feeling the majority may have about you, not in one given moment necessarily, but over time.

The BBC is more trusted than other media, other forms of media at home, most other broadcasters overseas. Why? Because of history, reputation, standards over time. Some newspaper brands are more trusted than others. I mentioned those Dutch papers earlier. If we sat down now and all wrote down the three or four words each title prompted in us, we would very quickly get a sense of how they are seen as brands, reputations good or bad, trust levels high or low.

Trust can be won slowly, lost easily. Rupert Murdoch thinks he is through the worst of phone hacking and to some extent he is. Nobody else is going to jail, it would seem. He is still powerful, wealthy, influential across many countries, adding to the gaiety of the nation by following in the footsteps of Mick Jagger of all people in his love life. But his reputation is not in a strong place at all. I regularly ask audiences, does he have a good or bad reputation, and the answer is always overwhelmingly bad.

A man with more control of print and airwave than anyone else – with the exception of Putin perhaps! – and he has lost control of his reputation.

One of my favourite quotes in my book is this. I am going to read it in full and ask you to guess who said it.

‘We have gone from a vertical society to a horizontal society where everybody has an opinion about every decision you make, everybody has an opinion on the Internet straight away. Basically the respect for people who make decisions is gone because every decision is questioned. So one of the most important qualities of a good leader now is massive resistance to stress. Under stress you become smaller and smaller until you cannot give out a message any more and that, of course, is something that is vital. Many people underestimate this challenge.’

Congratulations if you said Arsene Wenger, manager of Arsenal Football Club.

What he is saying, and he is right about this, is that in this world of constant chatter, everyone has a view, all of us are bombarded day and night with messages and messengers fighting for our attention. For the newsmaker, or in your case the news organization, you can only control what you do, and what you say about what you do. You have to trust people to get to the reality of who you are, what you do, what your purpose is. Back to strategy.

You have a good brand. As with the BBC, you have developed with certain advantages having been around so long, and with a role so central to the national life. But you know you have to adapt and develop your brand for the modern world.

In researching the future of television one of the golden nuggets that dropped out is that under 18’s in the UK have almost no idea that BBC1 is actually Channel No1 on the remote control. Instead they know channel names and website addresses, not buttons and numbers. Think about that and what that means. Our children do not consume media in the same way we did. They have more brands competing for their attention, they have more devices on which to access them. They are less likely to differentiate between something that we define as news and that they might see as entertainment, or documentary, or just something that happens to be going viral at that time. Media today means anything that anyone out there finds interesting and that they can access in any way they want.

They know what The Times is. They know what the Daily Mirror is. But they are unlikely to read them, not like I did. But they know where to find them if others, not least their ‘friends’ tell them there is something in there worth seeing, and send it to them. They know what ‘a news bulletin’ is, but they will never, as my parents did, settle down at a specific time in the evening, turn on a knob, and watch a man come on to tell them in 28 minutes everything that man from the BBC thought they and everyone else needed to know about everywhere in the country and in the world that day.

And if you think about it, it is extraordinary that we ever really thought that was a sustainable or sensible way of communicating the news anyway. Likewise, if I tell my children that when I was their age, the last thing on TV at night was a band playing the national anthem, and a voice saying programmes would resume in the morning, and then for the next few hours there would be a picture of a test card on the screen, which would emit a strange high-pitched noise to wake up the sleeping viewer, it sounds to them like something from the dark ages. The world turns 24 hours a day, so why should the media ever be silent?

The definition of journalist is changing too. Amid the recent weather chaos in different parts of the world, some of the most dramatic coverage was just stuff being filmed by Mr Man or Mrs Woman on a phone. The same with the terror attacks in Paris. These are not journalists. But it is media.

Where I would have hope for a brand like yours is that amid all the different challenges facing the world, yes, our attention spans are shortening; yes, you have to get a message clear in 140 characters or fewer, but more and more I see the need and the demand for more long form journalism.

I quickly tire of seeing a bombardment of dramatic videos of the floods – though I loved the one of the man who turned his kitchen into a swimming pool. But when I want to think about climate change, I need something more than a tweet or a GIF or even an e-petition asking me to change the world. And it might come from a Guardian Long Read, or a FT magazine article, or a BBC documentary, or a film that some kid has made in his bedroom, or an Al Gore movie, or a book, or an event. You are in all of that world. You can no longer just think of news as bulletins and reports and packages. It is a cornerstone of your brand and you must take the message of your brand everywhere. Strategically, so that every time the NOS brand is on whatever platform, it is landing a dot, and over time the dots are joining together to paint a picture of who and what you are, on your terms.

That Wenger quote is basically confirming that we can no longer control as much as we could. You have to go with that. What does ‘news on demand’ mean? It means the audience is more and more in control of what they want to see, when, and how. Live with it, adapt to it.

I think my kids are better informed about the world than I was at their age. But usually, if they are telling me things from media that have informed their views, it is likely the original source was social media. But so much of the best of social media now is, when you source beyond that, from the bigger mainstream media brands.

And when big stuff happens in the world, just as you reach for a friend in times of crisis, you reach for a brand you trust.

At the time of the Paris terror attacks, I was watching a sports event on TV with my sons. Like a lot of people, I watch sport and I follow twitter on the event at the same time, which is why during a big match often nine or even ten of the top trending topics will be about that game. So I tweeted something inconsequential about the match we were watching. Someone tweeted straight back ‘people are getting killed on the streets of Paris and all you can talk about is football. Get a life.’ I put in the word ‘Paris’ on twitter and of course there followed an avalanche of tweets about the news coverage of what was happening. I said to my son, who had the remote control, ‘there is a terrorism thing going on in Paris. Switch to one of the news channels.’ And he switched to the BBC News Channel.

What interests me about that is that if I had just been sitting there and bored with the match, and said ‘switch to a news channel,’ he would have gone to Sky or Sky Sports News, because that is what he might normally have on as background noise.

Something similar happens with politicians. Of course we live, alas, in an anti-politics era, and it is fashionable to say they are all the same, uniformly terrible. But when stuff happens, people want to hear from their leaders. And at that time, there is actually a bond of trust, an expectation of dialogue and explanation.

So for the political leader who is having to respond to the terror attack, or deliver a Budget, or set out how plans to deal with the consequences of terrible flooding, it doesn’t matter whether the people see him or her on a TV screen, on a tablet, on a phone, on a twitter feed, or on Facebook. What matters is that the message gets through.

For business, it’s the same thing: the pressures are to be tactical, so be strategic. In the new landscape, we are seeing the convergence of corporate reputation and consumer behaviour. If customers suffer a bad experience, their stories can be shared and amplified online and picked up by the mainstream media, policy-makers and regulators. In turn, if brands are seen to behave poorly as a corporate entity, people now have the ability to connect and create mass movements against them. Google, Apple, Starbucks, Nestlé, Vodafone, Facebook. People may love what they do and give, but they also want to know whether they respect their customers, pay their taxes, use slave labour, cut down forests. The only way to avoid this is to tackle the reality that can give the bad consumer experience or the bad reputation. Brand management.

So for you, at this stage in your history, the challenge is to decide your message about who you are and what you do and why? And how do you intend to build upon the strengths that history and your unique role have given you?

Do not be complacent. But do not be fearful either. The day after Gerard asked me to do this speech, he sent me a note on TV ratings from that evening.

Number 1, 1.469m viewers. The NOS eight o’clock journal. That is even with all the changes of how people consume media. That is pretty good. Number 2 was a human interest show, No 3 Ajax v Fenerbace; there were soaps and the usual stuff of TV, but 8 and 10 were also news programmes. Not a bad looking landscape for people who see not just a past in news journalism, but a future too.

Aha, said Gerard, but there is a problem. The average age of the Eight O’clock news viewer is 57. Four years ago that was 53. So what happens after twenty, thirty years? They – we, given I am now 58 – are all dead.

He explained then that some 60% of Dutch people between 14 and 21 watch online video. They look for clips on social media like YouTube, Instagram, Facebook or SnapChat. 85% of these youngsters have a laptop and smartphone. This has a major impact on how they consume media. Facebook is for 23% of young people the main channel to keep abreast of daily news.

Do not underestimate their media savviness. The challenge is to make yourself relevant to it.

Because young people often find themselves on the Internet and publish photos and videos to each other, they have a good eye for quality content. Young people are also willing to pay for it – sometimes. A half said they pay for digital content such as games, music and movies.

So he sent me the research. And there was something fascinating in there. Guess which is the most trusted news medium, the one to watch in times of crisis or big news? NOS. So they trust you, but don’t watch you in the way their parents and grandparents did.

The trust is the rock. The core to your strategy. But you must now build the links between the values and the fundamentals that make you trusted, and the changing ways that younger generations want to consume and create their own media landscape.

I don’t know what all the answers are. But that is where your challenge lies.

And again, a lot of the answers are in your own research on public opinion. What the research shows is that people are not simply newspaper-readers, or only online-viewers or only viewers of the main bulletin on TV. They do all kinds of stuff at all kinds of moments of the day. In the morning they behave differently than they do in the afternoon, and they may use different devices. Short news in the morning, long reads in the evening. Different consumption on the move to what they want on the sofa.

So yes a world of change. But amid all the threats, opportunities too. People want to get their news, no matter how; broadly, they want to be informed and democratic governments have an interest in supplying that information via non-suspicious sources such as independent media organizations.

And where are the opportunities to be found? New ways of marketing? Merge with other news organizations to merge audiences, like national news organizations do with regional or local? Combine different platforms and throw away some of the old ones? Probably, all of these and more.

News on demand indicates people decide for themselves when, what or how they consume, and journalists need to adapt. Show why real journalism is not the same as civic journalism.

If a helicopter flies over my house, I can usually find the reason within 5 minutes on Twitter. But it doesn’t tell me if the crime rate in my city has increased or if life has become safer thanks to all these helicopters.

So: is there a future for the traditional generic news organizations or are you doomed to die and be overtaken by smaller, flexible and mobile news sources? That depends how you handle it.

Netflix boss Reed Hastings, asked whether Netflix would ever create a live evening newscast, said: “You don’t want to invest in things that are dying”. He also said that he did not see a day when the site would offer live sporting events.

Let’s see. Back in the day I could never have imagined a time when the BBC was NOT dominant in the sports market. Now it barely gets a look in alongside new channels which have emerged just for that purpose. And if newsprint is dying, why did Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, one of the symbols of our changed consumer world, decide to buy the Washington Post? Because the brand matters, and he will want to try to adapt it to the modern world.

At the time Reed Hastings ruled out a Netflix news bulletin, his brand was making waves because of the brilliance and the global success of House of Cards, and the innovation of allowing viewers to watch however much they wanted, at their own convenience, once the series was made. Today the buzz around Netflix is all about Making A Murderer. Can anyone remember from their childhood twelve hour documentaries? It is journalism, but of a different sort to what we knew, and certainly not confined to 140 characters. So let’s not pretend there is no demand for in depth work any more.

Some individual brands will go, for sure. But journalism won’t, and nor will the need for it. It will just change. In the UK, because of the dominant figures in the industry, a lot of change has been for the worse, and it will take a new generation to repair the damage they have done. But I think that will happen.

One of the media figures I did interview for my book was Arianna Huffington, in the section on innovation. Her online news service the Huffington Post, founded in 2005, was an idea emerging from a profound understanding of the limitations of existing organisations and their approaches in dealing with powerful waves of change. I have to confess that when she asked me to speak at the launch of the UK version of the Huffington Post I was sceptical, despite the success she was having in the US, of Arianna’s bold ambitions for the first global online ‘paper’. But she had grasped that while many media outlets back in 2005 had an online presence, it tended to be tacked onto everything else they were doing rather than being thought through in the context of how the Internet actually operates. ‘The gap I saw,’ she says, ‘was the fact that you had the online world developing and you had the papers and TV not sure how to adapt and react, and the new idea was that it was possible to be both the platform and the journalist. The journalism had to be good, but the platform, the fact there were no deadlines, limitless space, this was where the innovation at the basic level could come from. Anyone who had an idea, anyone who had something interesting to say, they could say it. One of our early taglines was “The world’s first Internet newspaper” so we definitely saw ourselves as a newspaper in many ways, but without paper, and without all the restrictions.’ In other words the Huffington Post established from the outset a flexibility to its operation that perfectly meshed with the Internet age and the changing reading habits of people around the world. When I interviewed Arianna, the Post was receiving 95 million unique monthly visitors, had editorial HQs in eleven countries and more on the way, and she had secured a $315 million deal with AOL. Another media success story, another new contour on the landscape.

Last week, when I was thinking about what to say here, I took my daughter Grace, who is 21 and wants to be a documentary maker, to see Attacking the Devil, a film about former Sunday Times editor Harry Evans, and his brilliant campaign to get justice for the victims of the thalidomide scandal, perhaps the finest example of campaigning journalism of my lifetime.

Grace was fascinated by it. She had no idea that newspapers used to be carved out of hot metal, and then rolled off gigantic presses. But what the story did was excite in her, a new generation, a belief in journalism and what it could achieve. She doesn’t want to work for newspapers, though she writes for magazines. But she asked me to give her a list of great examples of investigative journalism. Why? Because she was inspired to write a piece for a new website many of you have probably never heard of, but which many of her friends almost certainly read, about what real investigative journalism is, and why it matters.

Titles will come and go. But the need for what you do will always be with us. That alone should give you confidence for the future. Thank you.

  • Jeffrey Archer

    Your words”You must control the weather where you can, but adapt where you cannot” deeply impressed me! Journalism should do no harm. Getting the fact right is an essential component of journalism. Journalist must have an independent voice and strive to highlight the beauty of the truth. Words have a power, for these reasons journalists should be keenly aware of the influence they have on people. The list of the qualities can be endless, but this article http://www.worldji.com/resources/view/49 is worthy the time spent. I am going to become a journalist after graduation (I hope a good one), I am going to fight for truth and honesty in this world. And I am very dissapointed to see a plagiarism irruption in our world. Unfortunately, many journalists don’t even blink when steal the content or idea. A blatant action that was a taboo a decade ago is catching on as a common thing. I have a passion to unique writing. And thanks to information and digital revolution, the slightest hint of plagiarism can be revealed, for instance the report from Unplag plagiarism checker can be used as a proof of authorship. https://unplag.com/ I care about intellectual property rights as it helps to discipline our world (do my thought sound a bit utopian?). To conclude, I can elucidate what I mean: a good journalist should be honest and unique (We all remember about fabrication scandal at The New York Times).

  • Michele

    I think you’re being too soft re ‘that’ edition of Today.
    It was an absolutely gob-smacking few minutes that was based on nothing more than someone wanting to achieve above his ability, it really spoiled my attempts at eyeliner that day.

    There were so many people at the time who jumped on the revelations from the ‘Today’ programme’s edition that had allowed itself to be fed by someone in a still-hungover fuzzy condition ‘thinking’ he was explaining it all..

    Yep …. for ‘us’ or for him?

    It was amazing that such damage could be done (and so quickly, within that day) by one person in an environment where its contributors were so trusted.
    He made it unlikely that such faith would ever be allowed to that daily programme ever again ……. so sad.
    .

  • Michele

    I can’t deny that despite being my favourite station I will never forget the damage R4 did to so many in 2003 by placing their faith in one A Gilligan to the extent that they ever allowed him live on air.
    I don’t mind if this one doesn’t see the light of day as I know it could attract the Disqus trolls from the Toxygraph.