Friday, 26 February 2010

Helen Boaden, BBC Director of News and Alan Rusbridger, Guardian editor-in-chief

Firstly, my apologies for the late entry of this blog, at some four hours after the event. Normally, my retrospectives on the Journalism Week speakers have been delivered directly after the sessions, but in this case various factors conspired to prevent me from timely updating!

So, then, to the jewel in the crown of Leeds Trinity's Journalism Week, where Helen Boaden of the British Broadcasting Corporation joined Alan Rusbridger, editor-in-chief of the Guardian newspapers, in a session chaired by Leeds Trinity media lecturer Mike Best. Helen spoke to us passionately about the future of the BBC, by quickly referencing that 'monster in the basement', former Director-General John Birt who for all his unpopularity (both within and without Television Centre, it seems!) dragged the BBC "kicking and screaming into the digital age...securing a massive strategic advantage."
An advantage the Corporation has seemingly not overlooked, as Helen waxed eloquent about the permanetly-staffed and funded hub for user-generated content the BBC employs to retrieve, filter and utilise what is created when the "consumers are newsgatherers."

Referring to specific examples of such content, she mentioned the coverage of the Iranian election protests which because of the nature of both the situation and the nation, had to be conducted entirely by 'citizen journalists' on the scene with cameraphones, laptops , blogs and internet connections. She cautioned about the double-edged nature of such news, explaining that although the material came with a unique and personal viewpoint, and was often direct and exciting, it was clearly slanted heavily in favour of the Iranian political opposition, and was often factually incorrect.
This moved us on to the topic of trust, a thorny issue for both the BBC and the industry as a whole; Helen firmly believed the BBC would remain a "trusted authority" over significant issues such as catastrophic weather or financial meltdowns, and that media consumers would prefer a "big, reliable, trusted brand" over "pert and facile" observations on some new media outlet. Her opinion was that "discerning and curious" consumers would - hopefully - trust the BBC.

Alan's very first topic was that of Rupert Murdoch's 'paywall' concept, that has set the media industry to near-rabid speculation about the future not only of revenue, but of the core concepts of journalism and editorial control themselves. Alan's attitude is very much one of contemplative patience - he refers to the sequestering of desirable content behind paid-for access as a 'hunch', a gamble taken by a man noted for challenging conventional thinking, and succeeding.
This immediately made me wonder if Alan himself is gambling on 'hyperlocal' publishing, by operating Guardian: Leeds, a section of Guardian online dedicated to blogging just within my fair city! Indeed, there is a chance you reached this blog through that fine website, and so is Alan 'inspired' or 'terrified' by the work now being carried out under his name?

Inspired and terrified were the words Alan used when he first encountered William Perrin, the original hyperlocal nonjournalist, to describe how the future of Journalism might be affected.
It was at this point that I realised Alan was covering much of the same ground as his Hugh Cudlipp Memoral Lecture, but the points he was making and the audience receiving it were just as vital today. Going into finer detail, he took us through the concept of crowd-sourcing, when the Guardian was able to cease paying £100,000 to business analysts explaining what Barclays was up to regarding it's 'Tax Gap' - by uploading an acquired Barclays internal memo directly to the internet, and asking readers to interpret the meaning. The relevation was that Barclays were brazenly discussing methods to mislead HM Revenue and Custom over payments, and although the Guardian received what Alan jokingly referred to as a 'pyjama injunction' - when a High Court Judge on duty is hauled from his bed to fire off a gagging super-junction - the document was now held by those legendary internet custodians of truth, Wikileaks.
Budget changes specifically aimed at pursuing tax evasion were soon announced, and Alan was able to describe the direct impact of responsible reporting. However, such responsibilities cannot be shirked and Alan had to wrap up quickly and depart for work halfway through our Q&A.

Instead, Helen Boaden had to face the first query of the day from some obstreperous young man who decided to ask about the sudden news story of the morning about the leaked Strategic Review Plan for the BBC which will see 25% of staff and funding for BBC Online slashed, amongst other cuts. Her response was to immediately question the veracity of leaked documents, especially those not approved or even seen by her, and suspected the Trust themselves were responding with horror! She acknowledged the necessity of the BBC's currently ongoing 'efficiency programme' and said that although the past three years had seen a "glorious expansion" for BBC Online, she stressed the need for an appraisal period where the BBC "stepped back to evaluate what was working". Helen also expected the BBC to focus on "what experiments had worked, and what alternatives the market was offering", referring presumably to her earlier comments about BBC Online attempting to offer an "ambitious" alternative to local news on the web, which was originally rejected by the Trust.

Helen responded well to what was a truly left-field question, as the news had only broken that morning, and her comments made clear sense, as we have discussed in lectures about the overbearing nature of the Corporation's web presence. It will be interesting to see, however, how much of this leaked Review remains to next month, when it is presented to the BBC Executive, and what their official responses will be, when they aren't cornered by a rookie blogger at a presentation!

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