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Last Updated: Monday, 24 January, 2005, 13:34 GMT
BBC 'must meet praise with humility'
By Edward Stourton
Presenter, Today programme

The BBC is by far and away the most trusted source of news, according to a recent survey. But the proper response is humility, not pride, as Edward Stourton explains.

Edward Stourton
Toughness and rigour...are every bit as important to our reputation for trustworthiness as qualities like fairness and objectivity
Edward Stourton

We do not quite have truths which we "hold to be self-evident" in the manner of our American cousins, but as a nation we do seem to share a conviction that we manage certain things better than other people - fighting wars and broadcasting among them.

The belief that the British Army is unique in the way it combines effectiveness with honourable conduct permeates our press, and the overwhelming emotion behind the coverage of the photographs to emerge from this week's trial of the British soldiers accused of abusing Iraqi prisoners has been a sense of betrayal.

There was that nasty moment last year when it seemed The Daily Mirror had proved that British troops had their "Abu Ghraib" moments too, but the revelation that the paper's pictures were false left us confident that "our boys" are different. Now our much-cherished preconceptions are being challenged.

Hutton's verdict

This time last year, Lord Hutton delivered a verdict which seemed to threaten a similar blow to the nation's trust in the BBC.

I listened to him deliver his report courtesy of the live coverage on Radio Four, toiling away on my rowing machine in the kitchen with the double doors open to the garden on an unseasonably warm winter's day; as part of the programme at the heart of the affair, I was soon so wound up with worry that I honestly think I could have given Steve Redgrave a row for his money.

Lord Hutton's charge that the BBC's editorial system was "defective" struck at the heart of its claim to a special place in public life, and Alastair Campbell drove the point home in characteristic style by accusing us of "unforgivable lying".

A survey of "opinion formers" by the BBC's Marketing, Communications and Audiences arm just afterwards reported that 38% of them said the Hutton Inquiry had damaged their view of the BBC.

It turns out that we - the opinion formers and the Man on the Clapham rowing machine - were out of touch with the nation as a whole.

Research into general public opinion conducted in the aftermath of the report suggested that trust in the BBC actually went up, not down, at the time, and now a YouGov poll for the Press Gazette has concluded that the BBC remains far and away the most trusted source of news.

Enormous obligations

The results are so striking that they bear quoting in detail. A representative sample of 2,000 people were asked to name one newspaper, magazine, broadcast news programme or news web site they considered trustworthy; the BBC, with 624 mentions, had a score over five times higher than its closest rival (Sky News, with 112 mentions).

The proper response to those findings is humility and not pride; that level of trust places enormous obligations on us.

When I am asked whether presenting the Today programme makes me nervous, I usually answer that the very worst that can happen in live broadcasting is that one is left looking like a prat - the stakes are nothing like as high for us as they are for a surgeon or even a stockbroker with a widow's pension to look after.

But in truth there is always a little bit of fear at the back of my mind about making some fundamental editorial mistake precisely because our audience invest such a huge amount of confidence in our ability to get things right.

It is not the letters in green ink that worry me - I was sent one the other day that was not just in green ink but on green paper too and it simply read "If this letter finds you, then the Post Office think more of you than I do, you politically correct spineless mouse" - it is the thought of all those hundreds of thousands of fair-minded listeners out there feeling let down.

Overwhelming evidence

It would perhaps have been natural for the BBC to respond to the Hutton report by drawing in its horns, and trying to stop upsetting people.

But the now overwhelming evidence that its trust rating has not been damaged by what happened this time last year carries a hugely important message; toughness and rigour in the way we hold people to account are every bit as important to our reputation for trustworthiness as qualities like fairness and objectivity.

The best and most interesting letters I get are the ones which criticise me for failing to follow-up a particular line of questioning; people do not want us to be rude, but they do want us to be challenging.

Live broadcasting is at its most exciting at those moments when you have to make a decision about the direction of an interview; should you pick up on that niggling sense that your interviewee is not being quite straight and take the conversation down some unforeseen alley, or should you steer it smoothly and safely towards a predictable conclusion?

I have seldom regretted taking the more dangerous path.


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