Kurt Barling is Professor of Professional Practice at Middlesex University London. He is the BBC’s Special Correspondent for London.
Professor Barling recently launched the first Middlesex Broadcasting debate with Mary Hockaday, Head of the BBC Newsroom
Broadcasting is going through a radical transformation. Much of it is being driven by digital technology.
The big question is how much should or will this change fundamentals like accuracy, impartiality and telling a cracking story to get the most impact from the information available to the journalist at the point of publication.
Since I became a journalist the technical transformations have sped up incredibly. In 1989 some of us were still shooting material on film and getting it back to London through shipping at Heathrow airport.
Few of us had ready access to networked computers yet and the Internet was in its infancy. Mobile phones were still a corporate luxury, the ultimate in status and exotica.
Now you can shoot and deliver a cut story more quickly and feed it to London in minutes from a broadband connection if necessary. For really tech savvy types you can do all this on a smartphone and you certainly don’t need to be a journalist to do it.
Ok there are all sorts of caveats on publication and for existing broadcasters where in the world you are newsgathering. But it does mean that in a world of great speed there is ironically an even greater need for sound judgment in the field.
Wherever students are learning the craft of production and the art of journalism this conversation needs to be loud and robust.
That’s the principal purpose behind encouraging a broadcasting debating culture at Middlesex University London. This is a tough industry to survive in. It is not for the faint-hearted or for shrinking violets. To endure you need resilience but also an old-fashioned sense of passion and purpose.
Mary Hockaday is an experienced journalist who crossed over into Senior BBC Management early in her career. She has brought her sensibility as a journalist to the task of bringing together disparate internal BBC journalism cultures in the new technological hub of New Broadcasting House near Oxford Circus in Central London.
As Head of the multimedia newsroom she is responsible for bringing together BBC World Service, Network and outlying Newsgathering Regional and Foreign Bureaus to make sure that BBC Journalism continues to set a benchmark in public service broadcasting.
There are all kinds of pressures on continuing to set a broadcasting agenda. For a start the transformation of broadcasters newsgathering ability because of a digital infrastructure has spawned a twenty-four hour news environment.
The need for speed in dissemination and to be seen to be first has been prioritized.
Integrating Social Media into the tools of newsgathering and distribution have created a mixed economy for information coming into the building. This creates additional editorial pressures to ensure speed of delivery doesn’t compromise accuracy.
Above all there are a multitude of players in this landscape that didn’t exist ten years ago. The digital information landscape has enabled new entrants of variable quality to make it even more difficult to sift fact from fiction. The business of sourcing information has become a whole craft in itself.
Hockaday cited the current coverage of Syria. All international News organisations including the BBC have found it difficult to maintain a permanent presence in conflict zones. This means they become more reliant on other people’s pictures and information. Working out the veracity of the images, what they tell you specifically and what you can glean analytically from the material is an art in itself.
But in this transforming broadcasting ecology the fundamentals will still remain the same. At its heart the audience will need to trust the broadcaster and this is where the BBC, says Hockaday, must focus its mission.
It doesn’t matter how many platforms there are to broadcast on, nor does the exponential growth of sources. What matters is that journalists endeavour to interpret the information impartially, be clear about what the story is, then tell it accurately and well depending on the outlet (TV, Radio, Online, Twitter).
There is inside the BBC, which is a broad church in any case, a healthy and robust debate about what the foul-ups over Savile and MacAlpine have taught us. Hockaday is fully conscious of the challenge to restore trust with the audience and says the overwhelming product of BBC journalism meets the highest standards.
But in this new landscape there is also a need for strong and well trained leadership not just at the top but right through the broadcasting industry because output is often mostly shaped in the newsroom or on location. To lead means to have sound decision-making based on evidence and judgment if you follow.
The audience are not fools, they are increasingly well informed and expect journalism to add value not confirm prejudices.
Broadcast News journalism is a serious business. The audience still relies on it to be honest, entertaining and meaningful.
The craft may be metamorphosing but the artistic qualities, sensibility and judgment that journalists still need to make stories compelling, accurate and impartial are prodigious.
The next In Conversation with debate with Martin Bell, Former War Correspondent and Independent MP takes place on Monday 4th February in the Boardroom at 6pm.