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Last Updated: Friday, 4 March, 2005, 16:37 GMT
Accountability key to BBC News
Accountability is at the heart of BBC journalism - as Head of BBC Television News Roger Mosey said in this speech to the Cardiff School of Journalism.

It's a long read but it gives one of the best and most recent insights into what BBC journalism wants to achieve - and how you, the audience, can help it.

Roger Mosey
The best relationship with our viewers is no longer one of parent-child but of consenting adults trying to piece together the best picture of the world
Roger Mosey

First, there was Hutton - the inquiry that subjected the government and the BBC to unprecedented scrutiny.

Then there was waiting for Hutton: the anxious weeks when we wondered whether the judge would bring down the prime minister or the defence secretary - or whether he might go for the BBC.

Then there was Hutton himself - the report, in which the judge came down rather emphatically on one side of the argument.

I was in the gallery for the News Special with Huw Edwards as we watched Lord Hutton's speech and we concocted a quick line for the end of his statement: "Better than the government hoped for, worse than the BBC feared."

It was something of an understatement.

All change or no change?

Now there is "after Hutton" - or, today's subject, the BBC's journalism after Hutton.

So I think I need to define what Hutton is now: how it looks more than a year on.

In one sense, all has changed in the BBC. We have a new chairman, a new director general, a new director of news.

We have a government Green Paper and the prospect of a new charter that will take us into a different broadcasting era.

In another sense, little has changed.

The Ten O'Clock News, Newsnight, Panorama and the Today programme are still our flagships and they still have devoted audiences.

BBC News is still, by far, the most trusted source of news in the United Kingdom, as the recent Press Gazette survey showed; and it still attracts the biggest audiences.

For our viewers, I hope they haven't noticed an overt difference in our output before and after... I don't believe there's been one
Roger Mosey

There has been no seismic change in our audiences' attitudes to us; and in the industry our reputation rides high.

Last week at the Royal Television Society Journalism Awards, the BBC won 10 out of 16 categories - including two awards for Newsnight; three for Panorama, produced by our colleagues in current affairs; and the News Programme Of The Year award for the Ten O'Clock News.

Who's to blame?

So what was Hutton about? At its core, it was about mistakes in the journalism by one reporter on one programme.

The extent to which you allocate error here is open to debate, but let me try a formula which I hope almost everyone would accept.

Gilligan was on to a fantastic story and he deserves huge credit for discovering it; but it was not brought to air in robust enough form to stand intensive scrutiny.

As Andrew himself conceded, if he had his time over, he would have handled it differently - and so would the BBC.

But what made those mistakes into a crisis was a failure of accountability.

We actually make mistakes every day; but they don't shake the foundations of the corporation.

In this case, every level of the BBC has some culpability for not handling things as well as they should.

Greek tragedy

My own view is that John Ware's excellent Panorama got it about right in analysing what went wrong and there's no great profit in trudging through it again.

But it was a corporate failure - and not, in my view, a personal one - that created the Greek tragedy.

What Hutton wasn't about, I think, was a massive failure of BBC journalism as a whole.

A lot of what the BBC did, even in relation to Dr Kelly, turned out to be robust.

It's one of the less-observed phenomena of the day of Hutton publication that Alastair Campbell said effectively that he had no problem with Susan Watts' reports on Newsnight based on the same source; and I do not see systemic problems in Today, let alone Panorama or File on Four or our other investigative programmes.

We have a clear way forward - Serious news; challenging broadcasting
Roger Mosey

The daily news reporting on the Ten O'Clock News or the Radio 4 1800 bulletin is as strong as ever.

Self-quotation can be a sin, but I was looking back at the weekend at what I'd said in a similar lecture to this in St Andrews in November 2003 a couple of months before Hutton was published.

And without knowing what his Lordship would say, this looks like a statement that passes the test of time:

"If in any field we are found not to have reached the right standard, there are two possible responses.

"We could either say 'ok, fine - we'll just give up trying to be the world's most trusted source of journalism' or we can see it as a spur to continuing to seek excellence.

"It has probably been true in the past that we have been defensive on occasion about criticism, not least because our critics often have axes of their own to grind. But the trick for us in the future is to respond to feedback more effectively: to use it to make us better."


So the job for us was to address specific problems - and not a root-and-branch reform of the whole BBC journalistic edifice.

It was driven by a crisis, and I wouldn't begin to underestimate how traumatic much of Hutton was for the corporation and for many individuals; but it's also, in retrospect, about an opportunity.

That is the premium competitively for us going forward is to be seen as the most trusted, the best informed, the fairest and most impartial broadcaster; and Hutton, and the Neil report that it generated within the BBC, is a spur to achieving that.

It's about not taking it for granted but working harder to get there. Hence the idea of a College of Journalism.

Accountability cannot become a weapon to subvert the journalism, and there should be a clear definition of what it means and what it doesn't mean
Roger Mosey

Not, as the papers suggested, Jeremy Paxman and Huw Edwards sitting on the front row and being reprogrammed - but frequent and universal training for journalists at every level to ensure we get the basics right, like taking proper notes, and with the overall aim of spreading excellence.

From the position of Cardiff, which has a terrific reputation for training, this may not seem so obvious: but with thousands of journalists in the BBC from a variety of backgrounds, we need to make sure they have the support they need - to be informed, to be confident in what they put on air.

It's not a matter of putting people in detention for past sins: it's about giving them the skills to be world-class.

But there is a question lurking behind the sense of there being "BBC journalism after Hutton" - the implication that there was a "BBC journalism before Hutton" that some people think was different.

Complete Balderdash

It's not about training: at its root it's "have we gone soft?"

Have we given in to the government's supposed wish for us to be nice and uncontroversial?

Have we set out a course which avoids scoops and opts for safe reportage?

It's something I'm asked surprisingly often though almost entirely by newspaper journalists; and for some weeks after Hutton, the Media Guardian had a column exposing this allegedly cowed BBC.

I don't know why the column stopped: I'd like to think it's because most of it was, to use a technical phrase, complete balderdash.

One example cited was our decision to lead the Six O'Clock News with Ken Livingstone's re-admittance to the Labour Party rather than the more "difficult" story about the investigation into Princess Diana's death.

At which point words failed. Only if you believe it wasn't a car crash - and it was Tony Blair there with Prince Philip to preside over the international conspiracy of all time - is the Diana story "difficult"; and I think we've seen in recent weeks that Mr Livingstone's membership of Labour is not entirely uncontroversial.

I cite this example only because nobody has come up with any body of evidence that suggests we've softened our journalism: it is as it always was.

Thirty million people a week watch BBC Television News - because the hallmarks are quality and a serious news agenda
Roger Mosey

Take Newsnight, for example. As the head of the department responsible for Newsnight, I have not urged the programme or Jeremy Paxman to pull any punches.

I hope they would ignore me if I suggested anything which compromised their journalism; and in fact the editor and the presenters and the programme team have my support in being bold and imaginative in what they put on television.

Be rigorous, be fair

A recent example showed that even when the journalism involved Alastair Campbell - and his suggestion of a robust Anglo-Saxon response to Newsnight's inquiries - we were uncompromising in our treatment of it.

Going soft? I don't think so. And there is, overall, a simple message to all our staff about our journalism: be rigorous and be challenging - but also be accurate and make sure that we achieve fairness.

Retain the imagination and drive that brought you into broadcasting, but make sure it's accompanied by skill and the right training.

That adds up to a non-negotiable package of attributes: we can't be challenging unless we're right, but when we're accurate we can be more rigorous in putting those with power under the spotlight.

But what goes with this bold journalism has to be a greater commitment to accountability.

In the week of the Green Paper on the future of the BBC, I shall leave the wider questions of accountability and the governance of the corporation to others.

But we recognise that there has to be more accountability for all journalists.

Ditch parent-child

No modern media organisation can see itself any longer as handing down tablets-of-stone.

The digital revolution has brought untold benefits and chief among them are the multiplicity of sources and the sheer volume of choice available to consumers - which means they can cross-reference stories in a way unthinkable a few years ago.

But audiences also increasingly want a two-way relationship: one in which they can contribute to the media, or argue with its facts or its assumptions.

It's a simple piece of public service to recognise that the best relationship with our viewers is no longer one of parent-child but of consenting adults trying to piece together the best picture of the world.

Audiences expect us to be professional, impartial and wide-ranging; but they also expect to be able to tell us when we've got something wrong, and they want us to do something about it.

For public service broadcasters, this should also be a no-brainer. People pay a universal licence fee, and they're entitled to accountability from the organisation.

The running order is chosen by professional journalistic judgement and not by the votes of various stakeholders
Roger Mosey

But this is, I'd suggest, a challenge for all journalists.

NewsWatch platform

We've seen in recent years the arrival of ombudsmen or readers' editors in some newspapers - but many lag behind; and short of the nuclear option of complaints to Ofcom, there is precious little in the broadcasting environment which matches up to the structure the BBC is putting in place.

But we pay for newspapers; we pay for Sky subscriptions; and millions of people watch the big commercial channels.

So there's an interesting debate about whether those consumers and audiences too deserve swifter and easier mechanisms for getting an explanation of policy - and an admission of error if one has been made.

This is not underestimating that accountability can be tough.

We recently launched a TV programme and a website - NewsWatch - which put programmes and policy under scrutiny, and offer a platform to viewers who think we've got something wrong.

There will, I know, be a continuing debate about the prominence of corrections within an originating programme.

But bulletins remain news bulletins: they are not themselves accountability updates, and a combination of NewsWatch with websites and a limited number of on-air corrections still seems to me to be a powerful combination - and industry best practice, which is how it should be.

Jerry Springer

Now I hope I've been clear about how important accountability is to preserving the reputation of our journalism.

But accountability cannot become a weapon to subvert the journalism, and there should be a clear definition of what it means and what it doesn't mean.

It does not mean simply giving in to pressure groups.

As we saw with Jerry Springer The Opera, there are vocal and well-organised groups who rightly express a view, but the vehemence of their campaign or the number of emails cannot be the only test of their case.

Equally, within the news industry, many of us have the pleasure of organised write-in campaigns from organisations such as MediaLens.

Sometimes they have a point, sometimes they don't - but at times I could spend my whole day dealing with their readers' emails, and there are other, greater accountabilities.

That's because accountability means listening to as wide a range of views as possible - from the general audience to experts or to people with an argument that they or their viewpoint are under-represented.

It cannot, however, mean agreeing with every request that there should be "more" of a particular subject.

The news equation

It's an understandable function of a public service broadcaster to be at the sharp end of the "more" culture, and BBC News is rightly prodded even more than most.

But the editor of the Ten O'Clock News has been variously encouraged by a range of stakeholders to have more business news, more news about the environment, more about the devolved nations, more representation of ethnic minorities, more about Europe, more about disability, more about immigration, more about rural affairs, more about the arts - and so on, and on.

His airtime, though, remains stubbornly stuck at 25 minutes a night; and he rightly has to put on air the latest on the Pope, the news from Westminster and the big foreign stories of the day.

Television news on channels like BBC One is actually very compressed: and the job of the editor is to edit as skilfully as possible to give a digest of the world that day.

Audiences...may sometimes tut at Humphrys going on a bit or Paxman interrupting at the wrong point
Roger Mosey

In other words, their accountability is to the audience as a whole; and the running order is chosen by professional journalistic judgement and not by the votes of various stakeholders.

It is exactly the same with the pressure groups: their voice is important and often valuable.

But the UK population as a whole - and the national interest, as represented in public service broadcasting - are the real priorities.

And this is where I think we can see the shape of a genuinely exciting future for BBC News.

Demand for serious news

In a sense, the response to Hutton and the need for training and accountability are about the foundations: the need to ensure the structure is robust.

But in recent years we have seen more clearly than before how UK audiences want the news they see on air to be two things: serious in purpose but challenging.

The demand for seriousness is shown in the ratings.

The BBC Ten O'Clock News is in the heart of the BBC One schedule and it needs to perform well to justify its place on the country's most popular TV channel.

It does that not by dumbing down but by having a markedly more serious news agenda than the competition, and by devoting about half its output to foreign news and much of the rest to politics, business and social policy.

When we moved the main news to 10pm just over four years ago, we were told by every pundit that we would lose by a mile to ITN and we would be beaten into submission by the ITV schedule - but it just hasn't happened.

Most nights of the week we win our timeslot, as does (every night) the Six O'Clock News, against entertainment or comedy or drama or game shows on the other side.

The biggest success of BBC Daytime is the One O'Clock News, which is a classic BBC bulletin covering the main - for which read "the important" - stories of the day and adding analysis and context.

At times, our critics get carried away with the excitement, or the spin, of multi-channel and the inevitable fact that audiences for terrestrial networks will continue to decline; but news is surprisingly robust and reports of its imminent death have been greatly exaggerated.

Daily scrutiny

Thirty million people a week watch BBC Television News, and they do it not because it's there or because there's no alternative but because the hallmarks are quality and a serious news agenda.

I also used the word "challenging"' and that's vital too. I applaud our terrific current affairs programmes on television and radio, and also the daily scrutiny of events in programmes like Today and Newsnight.

The audiences to those programmes may sometimes tut at Humphrys going on a bit or Paxman interrupting at the wrong point, but they see those presenters - indeed all our presenters - as being on their side: as one of the means by which politicians are held to account.

In a parliamentary democracy, it can only be one of the means; but our national life would be the poorer if Today and Newsnight didn't exist, and anyone who hoped that Hutton would put an end to their role will just have to be disappointed.

They cannot, and should not, be regulated into dull conformity; and in a fragmenting society they, and programmes like them, continue to be a vital part of our national dialogue.

Accountability is key

So we have a clear way forward. Serious news. Challenging broadcasting. But all of it underpinned by the best values of the BBC - accuracy, impartiality, evidential journalism.

Accountability is the method by which we're held to that, and if we use it properly it's a spur to excellence and not any kind of submission to quotas or lobbyists or to those who don't appreciate the challenge and at times the difficulty of daily news.

The biggest snare of all would be to allow accountability to be at odds with bold, courageous and interesting journalism: if we get it right they are, in fact, mutually dependent.

The accountability should be there to make the journalism stronger - and the journalism will be more trusted if it is accountable.

This is, I think, the understanding that defines - if we go back to the title of this lecture - "BBC Journalism After Hutton".

No 'post-Hutton BBC'

For our viewers, I hope they haven't noticed an overt difference in our output "before" and "after", not least because I don't believe there's been one.

But for those of us inside the BBC, the experience of Hutton has actually provided the invaluable function of helping us connect together all the essentials of what we do: the seriousness of purpose, the accountability, the challenge and the need to keep pushing the boundaries.

Whether that leaves us stronger or weaker is not for this generation to say.

But my hope and my belief is that it will strengthen us - and, more important, it will help us to serve our audiences even better in the years ahead.


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