Recently, my good friend and Head of BBC Newsroom Peter Horrocks spoke to Leeds University and posted these comments to the BBC Editors' blog on user generated content.
The speech and blog are an early glimpse of the direction he intends for the newly merged 'News' department of the world's most important broadcaster and it’s a pretty clear statement of the relationship he sees between traditional, 'big' journalism and the participating audience ... as both journalism and information sharing on the web evolve.
He has the responsibility for that News - I have the luxury of being able to comment with no responsibilities, now, of a similar order. Peter was clear that he wanted a debate on his thoughts ... so I helped with these thoughts from the yellowing ivory tower and posted them this week on the internal BBC College of Journalism website.
One thing no-one could argue with; the nature and scale of the challenges to the BBC from new(ish) journalism are unique. The risks to it dwarf those confronting any other news organisation. It would be wrong to underestimate that. In this as in most things, the BBC is different.
For that reason if no other, a careful and cautious approach is probably essential; but, some would argue, Peter's journocentric approach might not be so essential. It’s worth discussing - his vision of journalism yields very little of the trade’s role as the principal agent in the information business. Interacting with audiences isn’t much more than a help and assistance in that.
Not everyone would agree.
Take this. Peter describes how the BBC considered closing down the online debate following Benazir Bhutto’s death, ostensibly because that debate, in conventional journalistic terms, went off message - discussing Islam (rarely in flattering terms) rather than the political future of Pakistan (though there are perfectly respectable arguments here, here and here, to pick a few at random) to be had about the nature of Islam and its effects on Pakistan’s social and political development.
In the end, he/they didn’t close the debate down … not because it was felt that the debate was in and of itself worthwhile but with two ex post facto, journocentric justifications.
“Buried amongst the comments … were insights from those who had met Benazir or knew her. And there were valuable eye witness comments from people who were at the scene in Rawalpindi. Our team that deals with user content sifted through the chaff to find some excellent wheat.”
The other, this:
“In one sense it is very useful to understand the strength of feeling on this issue (the nature of Islam) amongst our audiences.”
In other words, the value of hosting the debate (and remember, it’s the comment and debate side of audience participation not its role as occasional, accidental reporter) lies in the “wheat” we journalists can sift from the chaff (a wheat/chaff distinction determined by us journalists) and in the steer it gives us journalists about what audiences are thinking, though a steer we journalists interpret and are at liberty to ignore.
“We cannot just take the views that we receive via e-mails and texts and let them drive our agenda. Nor should they in any way give us a slant around which we should orient our take on a story. At their best they are an invaluable information resource and an important corrective to group-think.”
True. But who’s saying that it should?
Put the other way around, is it right still to place traditional journalism (with all its failings) at the heart of the “public participation journalism” model? It’s understandable that we journalists want to - but is it really just “messianic and starry eyed” to consider the possibility it doesn’t have to be that way? Or even that it shouldn’t be that way.
Peter gives a straw man a good shake with this rhetorical interrogative:
“Should we (in the case of the BBC’s Bhutto coverage) have given over a significant part of our website and our analysis programmes on Radio 4 to consideration of whether Islam is a religion that is inherently skewed towards violence? Or were we right to concentrate our journalism on reporting and analysing the life on Benazir, how she came to die and the political consequences?”
Some will see this as a journocentric elision that assumes the web and what happens there and on Radio 4 (or in any other traditional context) are both parts of a single editorial continuum … with traditional journalism at the ‘good’ end and peer-to-peer web action at the other.
But are they all on the same continuum, the ‘low’ end validated by the ‘high’? Or if they are in journalists' minds, do they have to be?
Only if you assume that the web is no more than a source (of stories and audience insights) for traditional journalism does the argument hold. It may just be that (some of) what’s done on the web – in particular peer-to-peer information sharing and debate - really is a different species from traditional journalism … and that it should be. And that by the same token, what happens there – even on a BBC site – should have no inevitable consequence for the choices made in traditional journalism contexts.
So why not either let the web crowd do what it does or – if traditional journalism must intervene - inject into that web debate (in this case, over Islam) content touching on the question the audience is itself discussing? Why does that have any necessary consequence for the choices Panorama, Newsnight or News 24 makes?
Here’s one of Peter’s answers why not – but some will wonder whether it really flies.
“The general conversation on the web is freely available to all. The BBC does not have to host that.”
Rework that with the word “News …” instead of “The general conversation …” and see where it goes.
And for the BBC to host a web conversation, here’s the essential criterion ...
“We will want the information generated to be editorially valuable ... we need to be able to extract real editorial value from such contributions more easily … (we must get) real journalistic value out of this material.”
Hmm. Is there really no intrinsic worth in civic debate - whether on the web or in a village hall? Is that debate and conversation only to be judged by the editorial content it supplies to traditional journalism? Is there truly no public purpose and civic value in hosting that conversation?
It’s a question of choice. The argument that moderating web debates is costly and time consuming and brings editorial risk is true of all BBC journalism. Cost and risk alone and in themselves can’t invalidate any journalistic activity – they’re parameters to help a broadcaster work out priorities.
There’s no doubt that audience participation on the web does and should support traditional journalism done by traditional journalists. Anything and everything is a source. There’s no doubt, too, that peer-to-peer debate and information sharing offers big journalism important audience insights – including an aid to calibrating what impartiality seems to mean to audiences on any story.
But is that what it’s for?
Few will argue with Peter's stress on the idea of “radical impartiality” and the pointers the web conversation gives traditional journalism to achieve it – though I think “radical impartiality” was something both Peter and I were already pursuing in the pre-web age … he at Newsnight, me at World at One ... both ever looking out for the “thoughtful or surprising views and opinions” in any source.
But some eyebrows might be raised at the characterisation of web debate as, occasionally, “digital bullying”. And at the assertion that it’s:
“actually about getting the so-called mainstream media to adopt specific policy agendas, or lean in certain directions.”
It may once have been true that contributing to online debates was a minority activity and that, therefore, marginal views became amplified. But even if that’s a valid metric – and most would argue that on the web, it isn’t – it’s becoming less and less true. A piece of academic research due to be published later this year suggests that 42% of audiences now participate in online interactivity.
But even if the web debate does shift the centre of gravity on an issue? So what? Off-line conversation as well as speeches, books, magazines, newspapers … even press releases and spin meisters … have always done that. Have journalists feared “hot-air” or “paper” bullying?
So, the question is worth asking in the light of Peter’s clear statement of purpose for the BBC in journalism’s latest burst of evolution.
Is audience interactivity on the web – or more precisely, interactivity on BBC websites – only validated by its usefulness to traditional journalism? Or, conversely, does the BBC (and some other parts of big journalism) need to shift from an understandably journocentric view of audience participation and consider the fact of the online civic debate as a public good in itself?