Tuesday 18 February 2014

What should James Harding do at the BBC and what memos should he send himself ? By the former Channel 4 Head of News David Lloyd

James Harding: BBC Director of News

David Lloyd, former head of news and current affairs at Channel 4, ponders the thoughts that may have crossed James Harding’s mind (and the memos he may well have wanted to send to himself) over his first paper cup of BBC coffee – on starting the job of Director of News. This is an article headed: 'A clear case of journalistic underperformance: The house that Birt (and Hall) built' taken from 'Is the BBC in Crisis?' edited by John Mair, Richard Tait and Richard Lance Keeble, and published by Abramis on 1 March.

I would like to have had a camera at James Harding’s shoulder on his first morning in office, documenting his demeanour and teasing out any clues to his detailed prospectus as the incoming Director of BBC News. Did the former editor of The Times make straight for the galleys of the newsroom and gaze upon its sheer size to confirm him in his decision to enlist, or did that unwieldy behemoth, and every correspondent, stringer and freelance stretching out beyond it, lead him to ponder, yet again, how it could be that an output not noted for its enterprise – let alone boldness – had shunted his two predecessors sideways out of office in circumstances of some ignominy?

This was clearly his most immediate conundrum – how not to lose his head – but beyond the instinct of simple self-preservation, any experienced and intelligent outsider could surely spot a fundamental flaw of culture, identified by the solipsism of those who had inhabited it for any length of time – and the higher up the ladder, the more self-defensive and damaging it no doubt seemed to him.

Over his first paper cup of BBC coffee there was an opportunity to reflect on the sheer size of public funding that keeps this news and current affairs ship afloat. With his Murdochian hat on, he remembers, no doubt, that the newsroom was designed and paid for, out of public funds, twice, installed – first under a certain Tony Hall in an expensively extended Television Centre, before being located, presumably for keeps, at Broadcasting House. Certainly, anyone taking on this mantle would need to study recent broadcasting history, he  reflected, particularly if they were new to those media, and – so awesome was the task – perhaps even some illustrative historical parallels as well (vide Arrian: Life of Alexander, Loeb Classical Library for parallel English translation if – disgracefully – possessing no Ancient Greek).

When John Birt was appointed as Deputy Director-General to ‘sort out’ BBC journalism in the mid-1980s, he lit upon Tony Hall as his most likely and willing lieutenant – let us compare Alexander the Great accompanied by his faithful general Ptolemy looking to topple the 4th century BC Persian empire, which will fall not so much to superior intellect or tactics but from the sheer dysfunction and demoralisation of that empire.

Terminal rows with Thatcher’s government

It is customary now to regard what preceded Birt’s conquest as something of a barbarian ‘dark age’ but the more terminal rows with Mrs Thatcher’s government had tended to brew in departments other than the then separate BBC satrapies of News and Current Affairs. Indeed, while the News department, in either radio or TV, could hardly be described as the leading edge of broadcast journalism, (TV News had been headed by a succession of unlikely characters, not every one of them able to boast much news pedigree, and the senior figures in the newsroom tended to be long-servers from the days of Alexandra Palace, and almost exclusively male). In old-fashioned style, as on the newspapers of the day, the reporters – many of them notable mavericks – led the journalism, and to them was obeisance paid, yet the system could still deliver notable ‘coups’ such as Michael Buerk’s superb report on the Ethiopian famine in 1984 which not only prompted Bob Geldof’s Band Aid but set the tone for the North-South dialogue for a decade.

In short, there were parts of both news and current affairs that truly worked: on Radio 4, the Today programme, then as now, set the agenda for the day and was a ‘must hear’ among politicians and opinion-formers alike. Later at night on BBC 2 Newsnight was a new kid on the block but, with the recruitment of Peter Snow and John Tusa and the enlisting of Charles Wheeler and even Joan Bakewell to the colours, had succeeded in forging the first news and current affairs alloy, just in time for distinguished broadcast service in the 1982 Falklands War. Thus equipped, it was giving ITN’s News at Ten, then the acknowledged ‘news leader’, a proper run for its money.

At the same time, while the geographically and culturally distinct current affairs department was probably better known for its production skills than its original journalism, Panorama retained a high authority and reputation among the audience at large. Even so, Panorama was be shoehorned into a new purpose, discussing through documentary film the detail of contemporary policy, rather than follow the proper role of current affairs – to report narrative storylines or arguments that drive to a point of policy (it was only under the guidance of the now forgotten and maligned George Entwistle, when Head of TV Current Affairs, that Panorama was allowed to re-discover its proper role).

Hall himself had worked on both Today and Newsnight but they were not to be the blueprint for the original, agenda-setting pro-active news journalism that would speak of a national broadcaster’s obligation. For Birt himself had arrived, shrouded in the so-called ’mission to explain’, which was at best an elaboration of only one leg in the Reithian triptych to the overshadowing of the others (much education, some information, no entertainment). 

John Birt now set upon journalism of exposition, and – to a degree – of some analysis, which very quickly came to dominate the mainstream bulletins and, after those, the 24-hour news channel and, later, the news website.

But behind this expository approach lay a particular attitude to its intake of material – a journalism of ‘process’ rather than enquiry and initiative. As a result, some years into the pursuance of this mission it is common for the BBC’s only advancement of a running news story to lie not in further journalistic enquiry but in the excerpting of clips of interviews from the so-called ‘news programmes’ (those that include interviews, such as World at One on Radio 4, or the Andrew Marr Show on a Sunday morning). 

That is ‘process’ in action, from which in recent years, on a domestic agenda, only Robert Peston – an incomer from the Financial Times – has been immune.

News generated by the ‘power centres’

Not surprisingly, it took some time for this approach to settle with BBC journalists: at the time of the first Big Storm (the Michael Fish one) they were heard to a man complaining that they were being despatched not to report on the damage done but to discover when was the last time anything comparable had occurred. 

Over time this caricature came to sophisticate in favour of a more accurate description of the approach as it bedded down but this Birt-ist ‘makeover’ has never shed a preference for exposition of news stories generated by the ‘power centres’ of politics, government, business, finance or organised labour than for those discovered through the BBC’s own free-standing skill, ‘self-start’ initiative and resources. And therein has lain a major lacuna, of both coverage and ambition.

By now Harding has attempted a croissant and is resisting the temptation to compare its over-solid dough with the consistency of his directorate’s output; it occurs to him that, over time, many BBC bulletins on television or radio are not so different from illustrated or sound-described news diaries, aside – of course – from the truly unexpected occurrences of happenstance, at home or abroad, and that-even for a broadcast tyro-this must be surely be to underuse both media.

First Harding memo to self: ‘Newsgathering to be less mechanistic – needs restructure.’

Across the journalism profession as a whole his reasoning will be seen as in no sense idiosyncratic; some years into its conversion the average BBC news day has indeed taken on an undemanding rhythm of simple ‘process’, where too often the only means of advancing a running news story lies not in inquiry or lateral thinking of any kind but in excerpting brief interview clips garnered from those so-called ‘news programmes’ (those that contain interviews).

 It has to be of concern that enlarging a story is so dependent on the preparedness of people to speak on-the-record. And since the mainstream news is the epicentre of any broadcaster's journalism – the most watched and most influential part of its output – that is surely where the focus for change must lie. And that comes from someone who has devoted the majority of his career to Current Affairs!

Before long, word is out that their new director is in the canteen and now, bearing down on his table, is one of the brighter and bolder young journalists of his inheritance. ‘There is a rumour around,’ she smiles sweetly, ‘that you favour more “scoops” in the mainstream news coverage but, if I might suggest, this is a dangerous route, and a chimera: the audience wants to know what’s happened of importance, not what we journalists wish to foist upon them as significant – for how do the viewers or listeners know the journalist’s agenda? News has to begin from events of acknowledged importance, or the announcements of the powerful or influential, and it is for us to bring our informed analysis and explanation to bear.’

Like any experienced manager, Harding will keep his counsel but, no doubt, reflect on how deeply embedded this culture now sits at the BBC, and among its brightest and most ambitious practitioners – an attitude that you would be unlikely to encounter in any other newsroom, whether at Sky, ITN or indeed The Times. But isn’t the idea that you can truly strip news down to its purest essentials itself something of a chimera?

Second Harding memo to self: ‘Would like to see the audience research that supports this austere approach – need to set something fresh in motion.’

How long this Socratic dialogue can sustain is unclear; had I the opportunity, I would have made the following distinction, which Harding could probably make better than I, but could also quote just a few of the more dynamic broadcast examples which might elude him. And here goes:

Taken at its most basic, news itself can be described – in whatever medium or form it is presented – as a collection of items of information or ‘stories’ which document how the world is different today from the situation of yesterday, placed in an order of importance suggested by a mix of factors including the number of people affected, the proximity (sadly) of the news provider, the predictable or unexpected nature of the occurrence, and the recognised importance of the people involved.

Class, are you still with me, paying maximum attention?! Now, if you accept this description – or even if you don’t – it follows that those very ‘power centres’ or institutions of government, politics, finance, business etc. possess enormous leverage in being able to turn the news agenda, and it is how the journalist relates to this leverage that lies at the heart of the BBC’s post-Birt approach.

Two distinct traditions of journalism

One could argue that there are two distinct traditions of journalism in a free society – one passive, one active or, if you prefer, reactive and pro-active. The latter looks to respond to the actions or announcements of authority, assessing them fairly at the moment of that authority’s choosing; the former expects journalists to enquire of their own volition, assembling evidence from which to construct a storyline or argument, fairly and in the public interest. There is nothing incompatible or irreconcilable about these two traditions, they can and do co-exist in a single news programme or newspaper; what is unusual is to prefer the latter to the near-wholesale exclusion of the former. 

Certainly, The Times could not have survived or prospered for any length of time on such rigidity of input. An example: we all no doubt remember the murder of Jo Yeates, the young landscape architect student in Bristol in December 2010, for which a Dutch neighbour was finally convicted. Early in their inquiries the Avon and Somerset police would appear to have briefed journalists against her landlord, wrongly, as the prime suspect. This led the ITV news at ITN to run a report questioning the competence of the investigation, in which – of course – the police were given the opportunity to respond but which, in turn, had them banned from the police’s press conferences. A single example, but one of many available, of journalists using their instinct and trained method to important effect (vide David Mannion, then Editor-in-Chief, ITN, on Radio 4’s The Media Show at that time).

Now, is it conceivable, one must ask, that such a report – of justified, ‘selfstart’ journalism – fairly conducted and ‘duly impartial’ to the guidelines of the statutory broadcast regulator, Ofcom, could ever be likely, under the Corporation’s current mindset, to have any place in a BBC news bulletin or channel, except perhaps if an MP or someone else of authority were to criticise that investigation? Otherwise, the only opportunity for a news audience to see such a thing would be as a trailer for a forthcoming Panorama!

But I am not the only journalist, present or past, who would see such omissions of coverage as, at best, an undershoot, and, at worst, a betrayal of public funds. Another, more recent, example if you need: The BBC has devoted hundreds, perhaps thousands, of hours of radio and television to the ‘Lord Rennard Affair’ on the justified ground that it goes to the heart of attitudes – even a possible schism – within the Liberal Democrat Party and its credibility and governance. But did anyone think to ask how it was that the mighty cohorts of BBC Westminster, numbers far in excess of any other parliamentary team, failed to break that story in the first place, but that was left to Channel 4 News?

(Back in Channel 4 days we used to enjoy a joke that the Beeb’s favoured presenter ‘lead-in’ – ‘The BBC has learnt that ...’ was a coded euphemism for ‘Just how did C4 News discover that ...?’)

In Harding’s interview with the Director-General for the job (the kind you entertain when you are the only candidate and all internal competitors have somehow fallen away), it is likely that Hall urged him to consider pro-active journalism as more naturally the province of current affairs or hybrid programmes such as Newsnight, while Harding urged him to consider the weight of proper journalism being lost to the Corporation under the current approach.

Hall countered by asking Harding to reflect on the political damage likely to be done to the corporation by a return to the more eclectic news agenda of the 1980s, but Harding retorted that, as it was, the BBC had been no stranger to that recently!

Perhaps. But we are unlikely to find out, and even a well-framed Freedom of Information request is unlikely to yield this. One day the principals will have to be questioned. However, subsequent correspondence between them ought to be more discoverable, and it is to be expected that Harding raised the role of the Editorial Policy department, also introduced by John Birt and today serving as something of a ‘belt and braces’ advice service to editors in a quandary. It’s likely that Harding regarded this, from his own experience, as strictly unnecessary for any competent editor and may even have suggested that its very existence had led the BBC to appoint less able and authoritative editors. Perhaps a compromise was arrived at, whereby the functions of ‘Ed Pol’ were to be retained over time, but not as a separate directorate? That, at least, might save staff numbers.

Authority and range of Corporation’s international coverage 

Of course, one of the things that will have drawn Harding to the job in the first place (well, aside from the fact that he was out of work and available) was an admiration amounting to envy shared among his peers for the authority and range of the Corporation’s international coverage; some of its senior on-camera performers are major figures of global journalism and reporters down the line display enormous bravery and courage, especially in war zones. Yet he still has an instinct that, on more everyday, mundane assignments, BBC reporters tend to be less alert to the unexpected within their locations than their rivals at Sky, ITV or Channel 4; he puts this down to an over-oppressive newsgathering desk in London – fine as long as it retains a sense of strategy in the deployment of public funds, not so fine if it stifles reporters’ initiative, and the output with it.

There is also the canard that he picked up when first enquiring about the job that some of the more senior figures are almost beyond the control of production, travelling and reporting pretty much where they choose.

Third Harding memo to self: ‘Need meeting asap with X, Y and Z; sort out bad blood, can’t continue.’

It is now some months since Harding’s first foray into the BBC canteen when, one must assume, he had finally to be bundled out by security to forestall further, untimely dialogues but let us hope that, now he is beyond his ‘honeymoon’ phase, even for a novice – he can soon turn to the ‘value for public money’ equation and liberate the journalism under his command.

At least, the early signs of a coming ‘Journalism Spring’ are encouraging, as a whole new raft of editors and managers has been introduced, even at the risk of over-staffing and a top heavy management structure (cf. Broadcast Magazine, passim), whose experience lies – at least in part – outside the BBC and who will be less likely to prove out of their depth, shorn of ideas and bare of background, and cocooned in a ‘bubble’ if or when the next controversy strikes – as it inevitably will.

The public funding equation is crucial here and one must believe that Harding will address it, if for no other reason than from his background at News International, for consider the probable sums: True, the BBC faces a frozen licence fee but one that has risen exponentially over recent years, yet even that is not the only financial under-pinning for its journalism; its World Service radio and TV operation is now fully integrated with the domestic service available to a British audience, yet it is still funded directly by grant-in-aid from the Foreign Office. That, at any rate, is the current position at the time of writing (January 2014).

However, it’s important to point out that, from April 2014, perhaps seizing on this anomaly, the government will require the BBC to maintain its World Service coverage no longer out of grant-in-aid but from the licence fee.

 On the face of it, this could reduce the resources available to journalism as a whole, but in truth the funding horse has long since bolted, and the sizeable World Service infrastructure was built on many years of grant-in-aid. Now it is only its running costs which will have to be sustained on whatever share of the licence fee Harding can bid for but as the incumbent, he ought to be in a strong bargaining position, and it is other departments across the BBC which are most likely to feel the chill of a frozen licence fee.

Most urgent Harding memo of all to self: ‘Discover how Byzantine funding system actually works before going in to bat, and playing up new boy status; important not to start new job with staff-demoralising defeat.’

There is, also, the share of income from BBC Worldwide, reliant on the historic branding of the BBC, even if little Higher Education Funding Council money, arriving through the OU, actually reaches its journalism.

The precise figures are – admittedly – hard to nail down, or fillet from published totals, but I would nonetheless wager that the full resources available to the BBC’s journalism far outstrip the wealth of Araby or, more specifically, the market value of natural gas under Qatar which powers al-Jazeera, and certainly dwarf, for sheer dependability and consistency, the income of any broadcaster reliant on the vagaries of the commercial advertising market, in the UK or USA.

Of all news broadcasters with aspirations to be a world player, the BBC must surely be, far and away, the richest. And Harding’s challenge is to match the Corporation’s impact to its income. It will only develop into a crisis if it proves undeliverable. Or, rather, it may be that the next crisis of BBC journalism will not be political, stretching to Westminster or social media but will be internal, a struggle for the soul of its public mission between Harding and Hall, but one that will define Hall’s term as Director-General: is he Tony, Lord Hall, who ran the Royal Opera House with such distinction and took an instinctive and justified chance on Antonio Pappano or is he the faithful Ptolemy?

In the event of a stand-off or stasis between the two men, it would perhaps be for the BBC Trust – assuming it survives – to arbitrate, but I’m not sure I would advise anybody to hold their breath.

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