Charles Wheeler lecture 2014
Robert Peston, the BBC Economics Editor, gave the 6th Annual British Journalism Review Charles Wheeler Lecture at the University of Westminster on Thursday 5 June 2014.
The lecture follows the presentation of the annual Charles Wheeler Award for Outstanding Contribution to Broadcast Journalism. This year’s award was presented to Jon Snow, the distinguished reporter and presenter of Channel 4 News.
Robert Peston's Charles Wheeler lecture
It is a thrill and a privilege for me to be with you tonight, for two reasons.
The first is that no one who works in broadcast news can have been anything but a fan of Charles Wheeler.
A journalist of towering reputation, a doyen of foreign correspondents, someone who always commanded attention when speaking.
And for me – and I would guess for Jon Snow too – what I admire about him is that he remained a working journalist till he died at the age of 85 some six years ago.
Not for Charles Wheeler the siren call of the public relations world, or spurious but well paid consultancy of various sorts – which too few of my own peers have been able to resist.
He didn’t quite do a Tommy Cooper, by passing away on stage. But he came close. And if I am honest, that is how I would like to go – pegging out in the middle, perhaps, of a Darby-and-Joan two-way with a 90 year old Huw Edwards, telling him and the nation how the banks have got us into another fine mess.
As for Jon Snow, how can I not doff my cap to a presenter who told the journalist Charlotte Edwardes in a Standard interview the other day that for him (and I quote) “sex comes into every evaluation of a woman, there’s no doubt about it” – and that the possibility of sex only gets “parked” once a working relationship has been established?
Hmmm. It is definitely a measure of his unimpeachable journalists’ credentials that there has been no apparent damage to perceptions of his judgment: Jon Snow retains his status – along with Paxman – as the most effective news interviewer of his generation.
If there is a Snow issue for Channel 4 News, as there was and is a Paxman issue for Newsnight, it is that the programme is so closely associated with him that it is hard to conceive of it being presented by anyone else.
That said, one of the big facts about any journalist – and I say this mainly to the students here today – is that we all think and hope we’re irreplaceable, but when we’re gone the waters close around us terrifyingly quickly. Which is what should keep us hungry and honest.
Now what I thought I would look at today is a statement made by my brainy and formidable boss, James Harding, the BBC’s director of news, in the WT Stead Lecture in January. Harding said he had “real confidence in the prospects for the news media”.
And he went on to say:
“If you ask me that annoying question, whether I see the glass half empty or half full, I’d say it is two thirds full. In fact, I think this is the most exciting time to be a journalist since the advent of television”.
“The most exciting time to be a journalist since the advent of television”?
Is that right?
Now in one sense I completely understand why James would say that. The pace of change in our industry – largely driven by technology – is extraordinary and dizzying.
In that sense, the challenges we face are huge – perhaps unprecedented.
And if you like challenge, as I do, then of course it is an incredibly exciting, energizing time.
But James also went on to imply that the employment prospects for journalists of integrity, and the commercial prospects for news operations providing important impartial journalism, are largely positive.
And that is where I would not exactly disagree with him, but where I would say that I am anxious.
For the avoidance of doubt, you are not about to hear the authentic voice of Dr Doom. I know my public reputation is of being gloomy – of somehow causing the financial crisis with my prognostications of looming financial catastrophe. But, and I would say this of course, that is a terrible canard. Funnily enough, like James, I am someone who is an optimist, someone who – to use, as he did, that terrible cliché – tends to see drinking vessels as full rather than lacking.
For example, if anything, right now, I am probably a bit more bullish on the outlook for the British economy than most.
But, and this is the heart of what I want to say today, I do see powerful threats to what I think of as serious journalism, the craft of a Charles Wheeler and a Jon Snow.
First, there is the online culture that is gradually taking over most of the media. This takeover is inevitable. Printed paper newspapers may be with us for many years to come. But they are in decline. All the growth in news readership is on the internet, on mobiles, on tablets. And an important cultural fact about those whose entire careers have been in digital, and have never had inky fingers, is that they don’t seem to have a fundamentalist’s hatred of news being infected by adverts and commerce.
To be clear, I don’t have a rose tinted view of how it used to be in news. As someone who worked in national newspapers for 20 years, I recall a life of constant battle with marketing and advertising departments – over the size of adverts, where they could go in relation to relevant stories, and whether we should allow certain companies to sponsor so-called advertorial pieces (dread phrase).
But the rules of engagement, and the battle lines, were clear. As a business editor, I never had any doubt of my right to insist on and enforce a separation between church and state. And I didn’t lose one of those disputes.
Today when I talk to my pals on newspapers, they talk of constant pressure – not to get unique and exciting stories, but to find ways of turning what is now called content, and is regarded by bosses largely as a commodity, into money. It is all about, awful word, monetizing news.
Which, of course, in one sense is completely necessary. There will be no jobs for any of us if there is no way to generate profit from news.
But news that is a disguised advert, or has been tainted by commercial interests, is not worth the name.
You might say that it is all very well for me to sit here smugly moaning about this, because I am lucky enough to work for the licence-fee funded colossus that is BBC News. But even we are not immune to a trend I fear is pernicious – because I saw an interview the other day with an executive of our commercial arm BBC Worldwide who said it was inevitable that we would be running what are known as Native Ads.
“Native Ads” is a terrible Orwellian Newspeak phrase for ads that look like impartial editorial. They could be articles written by a commercial company, or features written about a commercial company by the journalists of a news organization but sponsored by that company. Or they may be videos either sponsored by a business or produced by the business. Of course each of these will say something like “sponsored content” at the top of the page. But it is very easy to miss this signposting when the article simply pops up in the middle of a run of stories on a website. As a reader, you have to be on your guard to distinguish the Native Ads from the proper journalism. And many of us may well be in too much of a rush most of the time when online to notice the distinction. Which is, I fear, pernicious.
My concern is that native ads seem to work, in a commercial sense. Take, for example, the new business news online service, Quartz. Much of its editorial is high quality. But what really excites advertising execs and investors is the way that it is able to charge a premium for its native ads, which are – depending on your point of view – either very cleverly or very sinisterly seamlessly integrated into its news service. Yes the native ads are always marked. But as a reader you have to enter the website alert to their existence to be swiftly conscious that they are importantly different from the other articles on the site.
Does that matter, if the native ads provide the resources for Quartz also to produce high quality proper journalism? Well I fear it might, because over time the impression may be created that all editorial is for sale, and none of it to be trusted.
Now I don’t want to overstate the dangers, but what I would say is that we saw – with the phone hacking scandal – how prone we are as an industry to cut corners in a hideous way when we face an existential threat, or indeed when there is money to be made. And to reiterate, what I see around the news media scene is the rise of a generation of managers schooled only in the etiquette of the internet, where the idea that editorial staff should be quarantined from marketing and advertising is seen as absurd.
Which brings me to a second related danger, which is that we may be going too far in allowing readers to dictate content – now that we can see in real time, by page views for certain stories, or comments left on blogs and social media, which tales are massively resonating and exciting the public.
Here I will doubtless be accused of an outdated and patronizing paternalism. So let me say immediately that I am not bemoaning the advent of blogs, or facebook, or twitter, or of the various forms of user-generated content. Among the biggest and best changes to my working life in three decades have been the launch of my BBC blog in 2006 and my growing use of Twitter over the past few years. And part of what I love about the blog and Twitter is the conversation I have with the readers, viewers and listeners. They spark ideas for stories. They point to fantastically useful sources and research. And they don’t hesitate to tell me when I am wrong. They also help me to understand what stories matter to them. All of which has made my journalism – I think – better and more relevant.
But routinely I ignore what my readers tell me get their rocks off, and publish and broadcast stuff that probably seems spectacularly dull – about, for example, the technicalities of global rules for keeping banks safe and strong, which I in my paternalistic way feel I need to tell people about, because they are so important to our prosperity, and because they failed so spectacularly.
I obviously hope that I can turn abstruse stories – that talk about stuff that is beyond most people’s direct experience or knowledge of the world – into riveting resonant broadcasts and articles. And the great thing about the BBC is that it wants and expects me to do journalism that educates at the same time as it informs.
However in a commercial world where hits mean money, it is legitimate to fear that difficult journalism will increasingly be squeezed out by massively popular stories with headlines like “Bought my cat a bed in Ikea” and “If farts smelt nice, would you ask for the recipe” (these are real stories by the way). The top story on the Buzzfeed site as I wrote this afternoon was “Coca Cola has released a range of caps that let you hack the bottle open”. And the second story was a native ad, for VW, headlined “18 dogs who love the open road”.
By the way, and you would expect me to say this, the ability of the BBC to decide high-handedly which stories matter, is perhaps one of the best justifications for the licence fee. Although there is tension even here. We at the BBC look very closely at which online and broadcast stories are most popular, so that we can’t be accused of ignoring what those who fund us want.
But my point, which won’t come as a surprise to you – and makes me shudder as I say it – is that our job as journalists is periodically to tell our viewers, broadcasters and readers that this difficult story is what they really want and need to know about, even if they are not aware of it.
My final worry is that the relentless cycle of cost cutting at the traditional news media, and the very economical staffing of much of the new news media, gives growing and potentially worrying power to the public relations industry.
There are a number of aspects to this. Many news organizations now lack the resources to generate enough of their own high quality stories to fill their editions. When I worked on the Sunday Telegraph a decade ago, the fax machine was strategically placed above the waste paper basket so that press releases went straight into what we called the round filing cabinet. Now newspapers are filled with reports based on spurious PR generated surveys and polls, simply to save time and money.
More disturbing, perhaps, PRs seems to have become more powerful and effective as gatekeepers and minders of businesses, celebrities and public or semi-public figures. In part that is because in some news organization there is a fetishisation of hiring young people, who supposedly understand the digital world and what youth want to read much better than people of my generation. But the problem with many of these younger journos is that they have few proper contacts and inadequate contacts. So if they don’t suck up to the PR, they don’t get the interview or the story. Which in turn means that unhealthy deals are being done, with the young hacks agreeing not to ask embarrassing questions and to send the copy back to the PR for approval. Also PRs are routinely feeding questions to inexperienced journalists, and insisting on certain hashtags being used when stories are tweeted. All of this is hideous, and degrading to our trade.
What is more, the socializing between senior PRs and proprietors and senior news-media executives means it is increasingly common for PRs to think it is acceptable to ring their mates at the top of news organizations and ask for stories to be skewed, or – if already published – removed from websites. I know of a number of examples were harried executives have conceded.
Now to coin a phrase, some of my best friends are in PR. Which is not a joke by the way. And before anyone accuses me of being a po-faced, sanctimonious git (which well I may be) I have had quite a few great stories from PRs. But the very best came in the 1990s from PRs who were rogues and pirates – and those stories were usually spectacularly damaging to their clients. In other words, PRs were just sources to be milked like any another source. But today’s PR industry has become much more machine-like, controlled – and in its slightly chilling way – professional.
The point is that as a journalist I have never been in any doubt that PRs are the enemy. Pretty much my first action when I joined the FT in 1991 as head of financial services was to tell the team that they would be in serious trouble if I heard them talking on the phone to a corporate PR rather than a chief executive or chairman. My view has never changed.
I think the best explanation of why our mission as hacks is always to try to get around the PR, to sideline him or her, was made by Harry Frankfurt in his essay “On Bullshit”, when he wrote:
“The fact about himself that the bullshitter hides [...] is that the truth-values of his statements are of no central interest to him; … [The bullshitter] is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest with getting away with what he says.”
Or to put it another way, many PRs can be seen both as more pernicious than the individual who consciously speaks the truth or the person who consciously lies – in that the liar knows that he is a liar, but many professional bullshitters have lost the capacity to see the difference between fact and fiction. I should point out that of course PRs aren’t the only bullshitters; but if they are not paid to bullshit, to present their clients in the best possible light, what are they being paid to do?
I did recently wonder whether we had reached one kind of high point of PR-driven madness when the Financial Conduct Authority – which has been bizarrely obsessed for a regulator with its public image – briefed the Telegraph about its muscular approach to beating up insurance companies, and then had to retract within hours when the article published by the Telegraph caused mayhem on the stock market.
Anyway here perhaps is the best evidence of how news organizations’ own ethical lapses in recent years – and not just phone hacking - has been devastating to how the public sees us. Which is that PRs who have claimed that they represent the defence of truth and decency against a predatory and defamatory media haven’t been seen as utterly ridiculous. God how our own stables have needed cleaning.
But surely it is not all doom and gloom for our trade, since - according to the Office for National Statistics - the number of journalists has actually increased since the onset of the recession in 2008, from 67,000 to 70,000. And on the ONS’s analysis – which I can’t say I am wholly convinced by – there are still more journos in the UK than PR execs. All of which seems a bit odd given that we know that thousands have been laid off by local and national newspapers.
So what’s going on? Well, the structure of employment has changed pretty fundamentally, such that the number of full time employees has fallen over those five years, from 39,000 to 37,000. All the growth has come from self employment and part-time employment.
And I assume that much of the growth we’ve seen has been for trade publications and work that is not a million miles from advertising. That said, the new generation of websites have been hiring. And if they are really investing in high quality proprietary journalism that is a good thing. But if most of these journalists are expected, as part of their job descriptions to write commercially sponsored or branded articles, those Native Ads I mentioned, then these are journalists who are in effect training to be PRs.
My point is not that the days are over of brave, costly serious journalism. It is just that we have yet quite worked out how to make it pay in a way that doesn’t taint impartiality or compromise quality.
It is of course possible to generate profits in this brave new world. But the combination of cost cutting and a concentration on popular stories that attract the most page views means that the kind of journalism associated with Charles Wheeler is becoming rarer.
For information about the award, please email [email protected].
The University of Westminster offers a number of journalism courses, including: