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25 March 2017

Bad News, Good News, Fake News, Slow News

Tag(s): Politics & Economics, Marketing, Languages & Culture
This week I attended the Annual Lecture of the Worshipful Company of Stationers and Newspaper Makers  to listen to the Guest Speaker, James Harding, Director of BBC News and Current Affairs.  James started his media career at The Financial Times in 1994 and, among other things, served as Shanghai Correspondent, Media Editor and Washington Bureau Chief. He joined The Times in 2006 as business and City Editor and worked as the youngest ever Editor from 2007 to 2012 when he joined the BBC. James is also the author of Alpha Dogs, How Political Spin Became a Global Business.

The event was moderated by the distinguished BBC Radio journalist, Peter Day. Now retired he worked for BBC Radio for more than 40 years from 1974. For most of that time he specialised in reporting on business for programmes such as Today, the Financial World Tonight, In Business[i] and Global Business for the BBC World Service.

James wanted to discuss the BBC’s latest venture, ‘Slow News’ which is an attempt to offer audiences more in-depth analysis of news stories and to help people understand the ‘why’ as well as the ‘what’. Alongside ‘fast’ breaking news, the BBC will put a stronger focus on explaining topics and issues. The BBC will use data driven journalism, blogs and authored mobile video pieces from experts to put stories into a broader context so journalists “don’t just break a story but explain what drives stories.”

But first James wanted to put all that good intent in the context of a seemingly ever more frantic maelstrom of bad news, assaults on the news, advertisers leaving traditional media in alarming numbers and politicians apparently wanting to become journalists!

Firstly the ‘Bad News’, and here James did not mean the fact of accurate but bad news that described crimes, disasters, and other tragedies. Rather the bad types of news which needed to be carefully distinguished. There was much topical reference to so-called ‘fake news’ but in fact in many cases the references were spurious as Donald Trump and others refuted perfectly accurate stories describing them as ‘fake news’. In reality real fake news, if that is not an oxymoron, are stories that are deliberately falsified on social media to generate revenue and/or reputation. Stories like “Pope backs Trump” were not only false but designed to earn revenue from the number of clicks generated. There were hordes of hackers in countries like Macedonia that had learnt this scam and were no doubt planning to disrupt the upcoming French and German general elections.

Then there is propaganda which is a growing phenomenon. This is still largely TV news with authoritarian governments spending more than ever on TV news to get over their version of events. Sometimes the line is true, sometimes not, or it may be mixed but it is always in pursuit of a clear agenda. James had recently met in Moscow Dimitry Peskov, the Russian Presidential Press Secretary[ii], or President Putin’s Alastair Campbell if you like. He had said “We are in an information war." Russia had just published a map of terrorist enclaves in Aleppo which bore no resemblance to information held by Western forces. The same day Trump had said he would have won in a landslide but for Hillary’s illegal votes. For James this implies a growing equivalence between Washington, Moscow and Beijing.

The political cousin of propaganda is Spin. It is based on truth, but the story is disguised or distorted. A subset of spin is the press release which is nothing more than an unchallenged version of events.[iii]

A fourth form of ‘Bad News’ is that of misses. James believes the number of stories missed by the main stream press is on an industrial scale and he freely admits to missing his fair share.  Causes include group think in the newsroom or in society at large and now, of course, there is the factor of filter bubbles driven by algorithms on Social Media.  This may also lead to massive misjudgements on the impact of different events and trends. While there is much handwringing over Brexit over time the impacts of demographic trends or increasing robotisation may be far greater.

Other forms of ‘Bad News’ include simple mistakes and blunders which James did not elaborate but for me the growing failure in journalism to check a fact with at least two sources is at the heart of it.[iv] The race to break a story means that editors often just shove something out the door which has not even come in from a journalist.[v]

A last form of ‘Bad News’ is simple bull-shitting or lying.

James touched on the thorny issue of regulation and asked who is responsible for behaviour in the digital public square. 20 or even just 10 years ago the Internet was fragmented. Now it is dominated by GAFA, a new acronym developed in France as a shorthand term for some of the most powerful companies in the world – all American, all tech giants. GAFA stands for Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon. But James had little more to say on this than “Something must be done.”

James then turned to ‘Good News’, again not meaning the reporting of happy, positive and progressive events per se, but rather his view that there were some positive developments to partially counteract his long litany of ‘Bad News’.  But first he again described the environment in which these were taking place and at first it sounded like more bad or at least disturbing news.

There were the unexpected events of 2016 in which a £5 accumulator bet on the UK to vote for Brexit, Trump to win the US Presidential election and Leicester City to win the Premier League would have won £12million. In an age of accelerating pace of change it might feel OK if you’re in the driving seat but you feel unwell riding in the back seat.

There has been a decade of no real income growth, innovation has largely meant disruption, militant Islam has emerged on a very wide front, and politics has been inadequate to deal with these issues.

James identification of ‘Good News’ in this is the observation that new media are rising to the challenge. He posed the question as to what will be the successor to the article or the TV package in the age of mobile. There have been waves of innovative start-ups. Established media are experimenting with new channels. He cited The Economist’s use of Snapchat, the success of The Mail Online, The Telegraph using Apps and News Corps going into radio.

His lightbulb moment for wanting to establish a ‘Slow News’ agenda came on 14th July last year, Bastille Day, when a terrorist drove a truck along the Promenade des Anglais in Nice resulting in the deaths of 86 people and injuring 434. Perhaps naturally news channels including the BBC stayed focused on this story late into the night. It was only the next day that James learnt there had been an attempted coup in Turkey, at least as important a story.

Dr Susan Greenberg is credited with the term ‘Slow News’ associating it with her understanding of the brain’s ability to assimilate, process and comprehend barrages of data.  James has introduced the following disciplines in the BBC.
  1. Reality Check: fact checking which the BBC has used in recent election coverage is being made a permanent feature. The BBC can’t edit the Internet but can select what it reports.
  2. Expertise: their own and beyond. As well as the World Service Intelligence Units they are introducing the BBC Expert Network, recruiting institutions like the British Museum.[vi]
  3. Data Journalism: not just to use data to illustrate but also to initiate stories.
  4. Turnoff: the concern is that the prevalence of bad types of news will lead to a turn off factor. They will look for new ways to tell stories.
All this is against a background apparently of budget cuts with a proliferation of news outlets, all functioning well.[vii] New skills are required to make all of this work- statistics, data, reality checking. James thinks young people are the biggest challenge. He is confident that news reaches the 16-26 age groups but he can’t measure it.

For me it’s even more important to teach school children how to recognise ‘fake news’ by placing more emphasis on analysis and debate. The young while not supposed to have Facebook accounts, all do, and they can’t easily discern truth from fiction in an environment where they’re being fed the stories they apparently ‘like’.

While I appreciated James’ analysis of the news environment and his recognition of the need to balance the desire for immediacy in reporting with the need for more reflection, I also felt that the BBC is trying to be all things to all men and women and even with its considerable resources that may be a news channel too far. For some people in the audience the idea of so-called ‘Slow News’ is little more than rebadging current affairs.  The challenge will be to take it to a wider audience. There was a time when most of the country would watch either the BBC’s man evening bulletins or those of its only rival ITN. Now there are multiple channels throughout the day while many people think they get their news feeds from Twitter when it may be no more than a rumour mill.

In the always excellent Private Eye, one of my principal sources of news, there is an excellent feature called Number Crunching which ironically contrasts two numbers on a similar theme and leads you to draw your own conclusions. In the latest issue[viii] they say:

·         2.5 million: People in US (population: 325m) getting their news from highest rated cable news network, Fox.
·         27 million: People getting news from personal Twitter feed of Donald Trump.

[i] I had the pleasure of being interviewed by Peter for In Business when I was CEO of NXT plc.
[iii] That may be the case but I remember when James was editing The Times that I showed a class of marketing students at the University of Bedfordshire where I was a Governor that they could deduce that many of the so called news items in that day’s issue of The Times were simply recycled press releases.
[iv] In both the excellent book and film of the events of the Watergate scandal, All the President’s Men, this principle of two corroborating sources is at the heart of the story and only this way could President Nixon be held to account.
[v] My sister lived for many years in Africa and would rely on the BBC World Service for her news. In those days its reputation was high but on one occasion in Addis Abba Angela listened to the BBC's ‘East Africa correspondent’ spouting some appalling nonsense which Angela, as a resident, knew was untrue. She tracked him down in the bar of the hotel used by foreigners, a not too difficult task, and asked him where he had got the story from. He was based in Nairobi and had flown in that day. His taxi driver had passed on the story and the stringer had reported it on the world’s airwaves without checking it further.
[vi] A significant problem over many years is that media outlets like the BBC tend to recruit Arts graduates rather than those from the STEM subjects. Typically they are less able to process scientific data or statistics. See my blog It Doesn’t Add Up 25th July, 2009
[vii] The BBC likes to protest about budget cuts and pressure on the license fee but they always fail to remind you that as well as occasional rises in the license fee they also get household growth which has been very strong over several years. I pointed this out to Tim Davie, now Director General of BBC Worldwide, when he was Marketing Director of the BBC. He had never really thought about it and decided that as Marketing Director he therefore ought to be in charge of collection! See my blog What is wrong with the BBC? 16th November, 2012
[viii] Number Crunching Private Eye 24th March, 2017

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