BBC Director General Tony Hall believes that print media will survive the social media onslaught, calls for more reporters on the ground to counter “fake news”, underlines the need for “transparency” in the debate over gender pay gap at his organisation, and says news must find a way to celebrate what people are doing.
Tony Hall rejoined the BBC as its Director General in 2013, after having spent 12 years with the Royal Opera House. Since his return to the organisation that he first joined as a news trainee in 1973, Hall has launched BBC Online, BBC Parliament and BBC Radio 5 Live. Hall is on the chair of several bodies that look at cultural industries in the UK and has been a crossbench peer (not aligned to any party) in the House of Lords since 2010.
SEEMA CHISHTI: The CEO of The New York Times recently gave print journalism another 10 years at best. The BBC has traditionally never done print. How will the world of news be without the print media?
I am not certain that print will disappear. People were saying that the radio will die, cinema will die… I take Mark Thompson’s (the NYT CEO’s) point that we got to adapt our business models, but I’m not pessimistic about this. Because I think quality wins. In all this noise, where do I go to find out what is really happening?
Although print may come down, we will grow through other methods. When we do surveys, people come and say, ‘We might be consuming news from four-five different sites, but we come back to the BBC to find out what is actually happening.’ So that’s really the most important part of our job. I’m confident that good journalism will win, although I don’t underestimate for a moment the difficulties on how we adapt.
SUSHANT SINGH: With the advent of social media, we see a lot of public personalities, including politicians and government officials, saying that ‘I don’t need you as an intermediary anymore. I can go on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and talk to millions of people directly.’ How does it change the way the media operates?
I know social media here is particularly big for campaigning and it’s the same in our country. I think it goes back to what I was saying, about where do you go to to find out what is actually happening, and who is speaking the truth. We saw it (social media campaigning) in a big way during the Referendum (Brexit) campaign on whether we should be part of the EU or not.
I think for all of us, our role in this age, where people use social media, is two-fold. What is a negative role, in a way, is fact-checking. I mean where do I go to find out what is actually happening as opposed to what I am being told by that website over here or that person over there. I think that’s really, really important.
The other thing is that social media is driving us into a narrower and narrower view of the world because that’s what algorithms do — ‘You like that? We’ll give you more of it’. We have to widen the view of the world that people have, we need to think creatively on how we do that.
I think that role for us — devoted to saying that ‘There’s more to the world than social media will tell you’ — is very important. This is much harder in the focused algorithmic world we are in. So how we find that route is very important.
SEEMA CHISHTI: But how do you beat an algorithm?
You know when you are being served up stuff because of an algorithm, which is just churning out stuff that you don’t really want.
SEEMA CHISHTI: I know, but how do I beat it?
I think that if you see the history of media, you’ll see first of all an openness — everyone says there is this new platform, be it print, radio or television, it’s all suddenly very open and very democratic. And then you see that advertising comes in gradually and people who want to sell you things take over. But then people wise up to that and respond, hopefully, and find other routes to media that they can believe in.
It also means that you got to be everywhere, every form of media and every form of social media. Watching how Facebook is trending with the older (generation) means you have got to find ways to get to a younger audience, which is our big challenge.
ABANTIKA GHOSH: The National Investigation Agency in India recently said that the moral duty of a real journalist is to cover development activity of the government. How does the media operate in such a situation?
I can’t talk about India; I can talk about it in the UK sense if you like. We have been through effectively four polls in four years — a referendum with Scotland, an election, the referendum on the EU and an election that the prime minister was going to win with a triumphant majority but didn’t. I think there are lots of lessons from each of these polls. One is that we came under a huge amount of pressure, for example, over a claim about the benefits in financial terms of leaving the EU and what this money could be spent on. That claim was false. Even though a big dispute was made about it, we (at the BBC) went out of our way to tell people that for the claim to be true, one had to make all sorts of assumptions that were actually very, very hard to stack up. We came under a huge amount of pressure to toe the other line.
I think our role is to be there… We are there to critique, to question and in the end pass judgment on what those in power are doing. Our role is pushing back to people that there is another view, there is another world. It’s really important as our world is getting noisier and it’s getting angrier, and people are less prepared to accept views that are not their own. That to my mind is a huge difficulty.
ABANTIKA GHOSH: If our role is to critique, does it then mean that journalism is essentially negative, that there is nothing such as positive journalism or positive reporting?
I don’t know if this is analogous to India or not, but I will tell you about the UK. I spent a lot of time going around the UK, especially post-Brexit, because I think that the journalism around London did not understand quite what was happening outside London, particularly in the West Midlands and the North East. People there felt a vote against Europe was also a sense of their own alienation from political processes. What came back a lot from the community level — which I want our local radio stations to reflect on — is that, ‘Sure you spend a lot of time telling us that this happened or this councillor has not done that or this road accident has happened. But we also want from you some sense of role models, of stories that reflect on my life and I can learn from that’.
I remember 25 years ago there was a big debate on how we should have more good news. But actually the notion of us as journalists also seeking answers and making that part of our agenda is important. There are some ways we can celebrate what people are doing and it’s not all about all the people up there in Westminster or whatever equivalent you are interested in.
SUSHANT SINGH: In India, particularly at this time, there is a dangerous trend that is analogous to the Rwandan radio, where polarisation is being used to breed hatred and perpetuate violence against certain communities and certain groups. What can legacy media houses do in this kind of environment?
That is an important question. The BBC is built on a core value of impartiality. In other words, we won’t take sides; we try to seek out the truth or get as near to it as we can. When I started off, there was the Conservative Party, Labour Party and a little bit of the Liberal Party. It was binary in a way. The world is not like that; it’s much more fragmented. That leads you into two areas. One is that as a journalist, you can’t repress anger. If people are feeling angry, feeling alienated, you have a duty to say that to the world, in my view.
On the other hand, we have a job to reflect as many different views as one can and to give voice to as many people as you can — people who are heard a lot and maybe are very noisy, and equally people who are not noisy and are not heard.
It goes back to the funnel that we are in with respect to social media. The danger is, I can live in my own bubble. It is our job, I think, to push those bubbles out as far as we can — to make me understand your view. I think it’s much harder now to do that. That just fires me up to say that it’s what we must be doing.
SEEMA CHISHTI: In times of ‘fake news’, is it possible at all for the legacy media houses and newsrooms to be just fact-checking all the time? Is that possible journalistically?
Of course you can fact-check certain things. I was with the boss of a large West Coast company recently. He was saying to me that on Twitter, 20 per cent of the users are bots. You sort of think that is a huge figure. So we got a problem there. We together can’t simply act as the fact-checkers for all of media and social media. You can’t do that. But we do have to build our brands as places you can actually come for the truth.
When we were broadcasting during the first Gulf war, there was this fantastic correspondent called Charles Wheeler, whom I simply adored. There was a story by another broadcaster of a chemical attack on Jerusalem. We knew it didn’t happen but that was being reported in the wires. He said to me that we need to be clear on what we know, and what we don’t know. I think that role of what we know, and what we don’t know, is so, so important.
The other thing that Charles Wheeler taught me is that we need to have people out there. I think the benefits of having more people on the ground are greater than they have been in any other time. I really profoundly believe that the best we can do against all this stuff is to have a person on the ground who can say, ‘That may be how it’s being portrayed, but it’s not. It’s like this.’ It is kind of old-fashioned but there’s nothing wrong with that, because we all know that reporters and correspondents whose judgment you believe in are profoundly important to the business we are all in. I think we need more of that and less of the processing.
DEVYANI ONIAL: Some of your women employees have criticised the corporation over gender pay disparities. Could you talk a bit about it? Where do you stand on the pay structure debate?
Let me say that when I came back to the BBC, I wanted to make a difference on gender issues, getting more women both behind the camera and in front of the camera. We’ve had some success on that, but not enough. I want to see more women in so we can get to the point where I hope that, by 2020, we can have equality between women and men at a senior management level, and also on screen. That really matters.
The pay issue has come up because last year we had to publish the pay of our top presenters. So if you look at the presenters getting top pays, they are male because that’s how the culture has been for a very long time. That’s why getting the gender balance on air is the first stage.
Let me just be absolutely clear that we got in outside auditors and said, ‘Look at everything that we are doing and see whether we are paying fairly or not’.
It is illegal to discriminate by gender but, of course, you can discriminate by wealth of experience, quality, skills and all of that. And what they said was that, ‘We don’t see anything systemic but you have got some issues’. Those are the issues that we are dealing with at the moment.
How we are dealing with them is, I think, really important. If I’m being frank with you, we’ve not had a proper framework for accessing pay for about 20-30 years. That’s what we are doing right now. In a population of 18,000-plus people, we had over 6,000 job titles. So I could not compare myself with you to know whether I was being paid fairly. That’s the reform we want because I want people to be able to say that, ‘We are doing the same job — even if we are in different parts of the organisation — then why are you being paid more than me?’.
I think transparency is such an important thing. We are determined to get it right. I want equality between sexes. I want diversity in the BBC as well. I want it to be a model employer. But in truth, we have a lot of history and have some way to go yet.
MIHIR VASAVDA: With the kind of money being spent on broadcasting rights, what does it mean for the survival of BBC Sport?
In the UK, we (the BBC) have 3 per cent of sports rights but 40 per cent of the audience. So what’s going on there? We have just signed a deal with the (English) Premier League for a highlights programme called Match of the Day. It is a much-loved programme and gets great audiences. That’s because people can see the highlights and feel that in some ways they are getting a fix of the football even if they don’t go to Sky or BT (sports), the main rights holders. I think that says something about the power of free-to-air.
The other thing that has happened to me in the past six months is that our brilliant sports director has been supporting a venture by the ECB (the England and Wales Cricket Board). The ECB came to us and said, ‘We like to rethink cricket, not in terms of quality of the cricket but in terms of how we reach out to younger audiences, how we can do things that are interesting to woo as many people as we can into cricket’.
The problem is that cricket in the UK is now completely behind a paywall. They (the ECB) said they wanted to talk to us about what we can do for cricket as we are free-to-air. They got it.
Cricket was finding that audiences were going down because people weren’t talking about it as much. Going free-to-air with the T20 format (has helped); a new format of tournament is what the ECB sees as the future for them.
When you talk about Wimbledon, they’re free-to-air. They don’t want to get behind a pay wall because they know that their brand is bigger by being free-to-air, and free-to-air with us. So your question is so interesting because I think there are subtleties here between the dosh (money), which will be from Facebook and Amazon and others, versus how you maintain that connection with your audiences who you depend on to build your business. So I’m hoping there’s a way through it.
I just signed most of our big sports deals up until 2024, including the Olympics. So that means everyone can see FA Cup, which is important, the Premiership highlights, Wimbledon and T20 cricket. People are very happy that cricket is back on free-to-air.
AAKASH JOSHI: Going back to what you were saying earlier about the algorithms, there is a technical problem here in that Facebook increasingly controls both the audience and the content. How do you deal with it?
Data, data, data. I’m just appointing somebody now to be effectively on our executive board as the Head of Data and Customer Relations, because we’ve made some advances in the last four-five years in gathering data about our audiences.
Getting data out of the companies we’re using, be it Facebook or whatever, is harder, especially the kind of granular data that you need to make judgment about things. But I’m very hopeful that we can make a big impact there, that we will get to know audiences as well as they do and then use that going forward.
I think in a decade’s time, somebody will be renegotiating the future of the BBC and I hope that by then, we would have such a close relationship with our audiences in the UK — and I hope globally too — that their support in the future of the BBC will mean that governments and others will carry on supporting us. I think this data is critical creatively, it is critical in terms of knowing our audiences and it’s critical for our future too. But it’s hard (to get).