The Inaugural Steve Hewlett Lecture
Review of Nick Robinson Lecture 2017
The BBC must commit to a "mission to engage" to combat "the guerrilla war" being waged by social media by widening its class diversity, reasserting trust and impartiality and giving more coverage to ideas outside the mainstream - like Corbyn's plans for scrapping Trident and "renationalisation".
In a development of former Director General John Birt's "mission to explain", Nick Robinson, the BBC's former political editor now part of Today team, told nearly 400 media folk attending the Inaugural Steve Hewlett Lecture, organised by the RTS and The Media Society last night:
"It is now time to engage with those who do not treat news bulletins and current affairs programmes as "appointments to view"; who increasingly get their news from social media; those who don't trust what they're told and those who crave the tools to separate what is true and what is important from the torrent of half facts and opinion, prejudice and propaganda which risks overwhelming us all.
"That will involve finding new ways to ensure on-air diversity, not just gender, ethnicity and age but, crucially, background too - class, region, nation & education."
Robinson said that should be coupled with "diversity of thinking".
"We will need to re-make the case for impartial news media at a time when a growing number are questioning whether that idea has any meaning and when some, on all sides of politics, argue that it is an establishment plot to silence or marginalize them."
Those who saw themselves as "fighting the establishment" had set up their own alternative media sites - Wings over Scotland or Westmonster or The Canary, The Skwawkbox, Novara Media and Evolve Politics or The New European, advocating remain.
"They share a certainty fueled by living in a social media bubble that we reporters and presenters are, at best, craven - obeying some dictat from our bosses or the government – and, at worst, nakedly biased," argued Robinson.
"Attacks on the media are no longer a lazy clap line delivered to a party conference to the raise the morale of a crowd of the party faithful. They are part of a guerilla war being fought on social media day after day and hour after hour."
However, Robinson conceded that too often, the MSM - Main Stream Media - failed to "challenge the conventional wisdom" - and used the "rise and rise" of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn as a case in point.
Along with BBC colleagues, Robinson recalled how he had once been accused of being "biased against him".
"My point then was not that my colleagues weren't treating him fairly. They were quite properly reporting on the widespread opposition he faced in his own Shadow Cabinet and the Parliamentary Labour Party. But the ideas that made Corbyn popular – whether scrapping Trident or renationalization – should be examined and interrogated in their own right and not simply as a cause of rows or splits."
As well as having a wider working-class staff intake, the BBC should also invest in a "diversity of thinking".
"It involves not just who we employ but how we do our jobs. We should get out more, we should study the polls with more, not less intensity and we should look for underlying trends. That does not mean extending still further the fatuous vox poppery that is a substitute for a serious examination of voter attitudes."
As an example, he cited his TV documentary "The Truth About Immigration".
"To the young, the well off and those working in the big cities immigration often represented a cultural diversity to be relished, a better choice of local food shops and take always and, yes, a cheap cleaner, builder or, even, nanny. But to other people it represented an unsettling change in the area they'd grown up in; an over-crowded GP waiting room or queue to get into the local school and competition for both jobs and wages."
And finally, he urged the BBC to be more open about its editorial judgements.
"Let's not leave the editorial debate we had on the metaphorical cutting room floor along with the footage we didn't use but pin at least some of it up and then - when those inevitable complaints do follow - point to what we said and did at the time and curtail the absurdly costly and unproductive process of reviewing and re-reviewing all but the most serious complaints."
Paul Charman, The Media Society