Fleet Street and the BBC should realise that they had a stake in each other’s future and that by working alongside each other they could go on delivering some of the best journalism in the world.
James Harding, the BBC’s new director of news and current affairs, gave the Journalists’ Charity what he acknowledged was an unfashionable but unashamedly upbeat assessment of the future of British journalism.
He told the charity’s annual summer lunch (2.7.2013) that the BBC had a vital stake in the future of the press and in safeguarding press freedom.
Not only did Fleet Street provide a brilliant, boisterous expression of opinion but it also faced the critical challenge of helping to provide a constant a constant stream of ideas which sustained the journalism of the BBC.
“Within the BBC there is a constant hunger for fresh stories and opinions for which it relies on the papers and for its part the BBC acts as a fog horn for the great work of Fleet Street and it should credit newspapers and journalists for their reporting”.
Mr Harding was welcomed by the society’s chairman Laurie Upshon who opened the proceedings with a heart-felt appeal to all journalists to spread news of the charity’s work to every news room in the country ahead of the charity’s 150th anniversary next year.
After the recent run of traumatic events for journalists in both press and broadcasting, the Venerable David Meara, vicar of St Bride’s Fleet Street, did his best to lift spirits with prayers before lunch which ended with the cry that the assembled guests should “banish post-Leveson gloom. Amen”.
Mr Harding, editor of The Times until December 2012, was determined to be equally positive. He said he still had a month to wait before becoming the BBC’s director of news and current affairs in August 2013 so his remarks were very much those of a “licence payer, viewer and newspaper reader”.
But with encouragement at the lunch from former colleagues in the press, he gave a gutsy performance answering some challenging questions about recent troubled times at both News International and the BBC.
While he acknowledged that the BBC had been leading the news for perhaps the wrong reasons – and the BBC had made its fair share of apologies over the previous year – he felt as a licence payer and future employee that he did not want “an apologetic BBC, but an ambitious BBC which strives to do the best journalism that is possible”.
Public funding meant there was much in journalism which the BBC could not do but which could be delivered by newspapers, bloggers, citizen journalists and the like; they could campaign for change, voice their furies, peddle gossip, push their own agendas and do all those “passionate and naughty” things for which the British press was renowned.
Working alongside each other, Fleet Street and the BBC could continue to strengthen British journalism. “For me, this enthusiasm for the future is undimmed”. He felt honoured to be joining the BBC and he was saying that publicly because it was not the view of every journalist nor was it the view of every journalist at the BBC.
Mr Harding began his speech with a rather cryptic explanation of his departure from Rupert Murdoch’s employment. “I resigned...err...I was resigned from The Times”, he conceded amid much laughter.
When pressed for an even fuller explanation by Bill Newman, a Journalists’ Charity trustee and former managing editor at News International, Mr Harding said he was sad to leave but he realised that when a “proprietor had a different view of things from the editor, I understand that the proprietor is not leaving”. But it should not be forgotten that Rupert Murdoch saved The Times from closure and that “was a very important contribution to the life of the press in this country”.
One of the final articles he wrote for the paper as editor was setting out the case against any form of statutory regulation of the press. It was published just before publication of the Leveson Report, ahead of the scandals over Jimmy Saville and Lord McAlpine which engulfed the BBC, and before he knew he was leaving.
“I made two central points: I took the unfashionable view that the BBC is seriously the best and that Fleet Street journalism is one of the greatest things about this country”.
But he was asked why he had written a leader for The Times criticising the BBC for having made a submission in opposition to News Corporation’s attempt to buy outstanding shares in BSkyB. He said the point of the leader was one which continued to be an issue: how should the BBC, when it operated on such a large scale, act responsibly in the market place. Hence in view of that uncertainty about the BBC’s own position he felt the Corporation’s intervention was somewhat ironic.
A testing question from the broadcaster John Stapleton was taken head on. If Mr Harding had been in control at the time, would he have agreed to move BBC programmes to Salford?
Again there was a blunt answer: “Yes, when you go to Salford you see it makes a huge difference. I will spend more time in the north west of England and the move is having a meaningful impact on the coverage and work of the BBC”.
Mr Harding felt the move to Salford was an attempt to answer the complaint about southern bias in the BBC’s coverage; the move had also been a “good thing” for the Breakfast television programme and from his conversations with the staff, he understood the audience figures were doing well.
John Stapleton was encouraged by the answer: as a northerner he applauded the move to Salford and agreed that the “enormous” metropolitan bias in the media needed to be countered. As for the impact on ITV’s Daybreak the move by Breakfast to Salford had “not made one jot of difference to the ratings...but please don’t make that too public!”
On being challenged about the BBC’s decision to pull out of Pebble Mill in Birmingham, he insisted that the BBC’s appetite for local and regional news was huge and continued to attract resources; the largest audiences were often for the regional news at the end of the Six O’clock and Ten O’clock News bulletins.
But he acknowledged that question of how BBC local and regional newsrooms should relate to other news providers in their areas was “work in progress”.
When asked if the BBC had been seriously damaged by a succession of editorial disasters and renewed controversy over exorbitant pay-offs to departing executives, Mr Harding said that one of the consequences of the scandals over Saville and McApline, was that they had shown an “extraordinary resilience” in the level of public trust in the BBC and continuing high expectations.
“I don’t buy the idea that the BBC is holed below the water line. I think it is an incredibly important news organisation. To have confidence in the BBC is not a fashionable position. I think when you look at the quality of its work it is tremendously impressive but yes it can do better”.
After thanking Mr Harding, the chairman Laurie Upshon was able bang the fund-raising drum: Jonathan Grun of the Press Association, this year’s president of the Society of Editors, handed over a cheque for £11,400 and Sir Doug Ellis, the former owner of Aston Villa Football Club, donated a cheque for £1,000.
Nicholas Jones 2.7.2013