Posts about bbc

News is a subset of the conversation

Here’s a tale that reveals how journalists tend to think of their role in the conversation that makes up news and society.

I think the conversation is happening all around us, with or without the journalists. I teach now that it’s the role of the journalist to add value to that conversation: verification, debunking, facts, reporting, context, platforms, teaching…. The late James Carey defines the role differently. As Jay Rosen explains in the Carey Reader: “The press does not ‘inform’ the public. It is ‘the public’ that ought to inform the press. The true subject matter of journalism is the conversation the public is having with itself.”

But I’m seeing that news organizations think it is their role to lead the conversation (they set the agenda), allow the conversation (you may now comment on our story, now that it’s done), and judge the conversation (see Bill Keller’s sniffing at vox polloi).

That’s why I went theatrically batshit on Twitter against the BBC for holding the first day of a meeting this week about *social media* under Chatham House Rule, which decrees: “participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed.”

That’s a fancy, British way to say “not for attribution.” Or as I said in another tweet, “Chatham House Rule turns everyone into an anonymous source. Precisely the wrong thing for a journo org to do!” That is especially an issue for a public journalistic institution, which should be setting an example for other journalists and their sources.

But it’s most shocking that the BBC would impose this rule on a meeting that is not only about *social media* — I thought all Brits bragged about having a sense of irony Americans lack; apparently not — but worse, one that carried the haughty ambition to formulate “a universally accepted set of verification guidelines for social media material” and “an accepted ethical framework for using sensitive material from social networks.” Don’t they see that one can can longer set true standards for the rest of the world in closed rooms with invite-only guests who are gagged or anonymous and prevented from interacting with that world? Then the outcome becomes a standard only for that small subset of people, which negates its authority as a standard. At best, it’s another club rule.

The arguments back to me on Twitter were mostly that employees needed the comfort of anonymity to speak freely about their employers. My response: The meeting wasn’t streamed. Anyone could request the courtesy not to be quoted or that what he or she says isn’t to be attributed. But the BBC made secrecy the default. Tone deaf. Shameful.

The next morning, at the open and streamed second day of the conference, Peter Horrocks, head of news for the BBC, attacked critics for attacking the BBC for limiting comments on its site to 400 characters (2.85 tweets), calling them extremists and zealots. Horrocks is bidding to control the conversation about controlling the conversation. Oh, my.

But that is the reflex of the journalist: to control the conversation.

Later in the afternoon, by coincidence, I heard from the BBC’s flagship show, Newsnight, asking me to come on to talk about privacy and the superinjunction row in the UK. I told the producer what I had to say about how futile and noxious to my idea of free speech it was for the courts of London to think they could control the conversation and do so in secrecy.

Later, I heard from the producer that “we have booked someone here in London who can make it into the studio, which always works better, and it would imbalance the discussion to have a third person.” Imbalancing a discussion sounds just up my ally. Pity I couldn’t. But that’s fine, it’s their prerogative as it’s their time on their air. But this moment illustrates the point: What journalists have done for a living is manage a conversation.

That is the presumption they now bring to online and the world’s comments.

The problem with comments, I’ve argued lately, is that the form and timing of them is essentially insulting to the public: It says we journalists don’t want to hear from you, the public, until after we are done with our work making content for you to consume. Then the public speaks and journalists don’t listen (because they think their stories are done) and the commenters are insulted and so they insult the journalists and the journalists say that’s the proof that the comments and the commenters aren’t worth the attention. A very vicious cycle. The conversation catches cooties.

The reason the BBC cut its comments down to 400 characters is cost. In a discussion on Twitter with the BBC’s Nick Reynolds, the social media executive who oversees moderation of all BBC social media, that became clear. Comments require moderation and that’s a cost. True enough. But I tried to argue with Reynolds in Twitter that the conversation writ large could also save costs. I couldn’t get it through to him. He kept defining the conversation as comments and “UGC.” I kept defining the conversation as collaboration.

Collaboration is not allowing people to comment. Collaboration is not giving them opinion polls. (Carey, by the way, argued that polling is “an attempt to stimulate public opinion in order to prevent an authentic public opinion from forming,” but that’s another topic.) Collaboration is not enabling them to send in the pictures of the snow on their back porches, something I hate when TV news does it as it condescends — it says the public can’t provide real news or quality images; we’re merely humoring them. “UGC” is bullshit.

No, collaboration is about sharing the work of journalism. Collaboration brings value and can even save costs. Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian (he closed the BBC’s conference but, unfortunately, video of it is not online), often talks about the mutualization of news and how opening up its work can enable a journalistic organization to produce journalism it otherwise could not do or afford to do.

At the BBC conference, Esra Dogramaci of Al Jazeera gave an impressive presentation of the networks’ use of social media to collaborate. Then the BBC moderator quizzed her about whether social media would “drive the agenda” of the news. And a BBC staffer fretted that by providing cameras and training to protestors in the Arab Spring, “aren’t you now intertwining yourselves with the protestors?” The moderator asked whether Al Jazeera’s mission of “giving voice to the voiceless” encourages the revolution. Another BBC staffer suggested that by providing the means for the people to talk, Al Jazeera may be subversive. Dogramaci replied, most articulately, that Al Jazeera is on the side of the people and if that is subversive, then so be it.

In what Al Jazeera does, we see the seed of a new definition of journalism and its role in the conversation: as a service to it.

There is yet a further extension of the model in what Andy Carvin has been doing on Twitter covering the Arab Spring (he also spoke at the BBC event). What strikes me there is that Andy does not start or enable or even necessarily serve the conversation, as the conversation is going on with or without him. The witnesses to news are telling the world what they are seeing. Andy observes it and plucks out the good and reliable witnesses and he passes what they observe on, adding value along the way: vetting, questioning, debunking, context, explanation, assigning….

News, then, begins to take on the architecture of the internet itself: end-to-end. At one end are the witnesses sharing, at the other the readers reading and interacting, asking their own questions, having their own say, passing on and recommending what interests them. No need for a gatekeeper. No need for a distributor. No need for a central hub. No tolerance for controllers. The conversation is occurring on its own.

Journalism is sometimes a subset of that conversation. It can add value. It can serve. But it should not think of itself as the creator of the conversation, the setter of the agenda, though that is what I see in so much of the BBC’s worldview as demonstrated at events this week. They might have learned that better if instead of a meeting, they held a conversation.

The conversation is news.

: MORE: Adam Tinworth wonders why a group of big-media people deserves the protection of CHR but the larger group doesn’t. Ah, the Brits and class.

: Here’s the BBC’s explanation of its decision re Chatham House Rule.

Me & media on Wikileaks

Here are some appearances I’ve been making regarding Wikileaks, transparency, and press freedom.

On CNN with John King Thursday night talking about the hacking of MasterCard et al, quoting this Guardian editorial arguing that the attacks are a form of civil (cyber) disobedience in defense of a free internet:

Here’s a link to BBC audio, on the same subject, discussing the shift from power-to-power to peer-to-peer architecture.

The Berliner Zeitung BZ asked for a brief op-ed. Here’s the English text:

Should Wikileaks be stopped? The question is somewhat irrelevant. The movement it exemplifies – transparency – cannot be stopped.

I’m not saying that secrecy is dead. We still need secrets – about security, crime, privacy, diplomacy. But we have far too many secrets in government. One thing that Wikileaks reveals is the abuse of government secrecy.

But now governments will have to learn how to operate under the assumption that anything they do can be seen on the front page of this newspaper. Is that a bad thing? I don’t think so. I say that government must become transparent by default, secret by necessity.

Transparency breeds trust. Whether for government or journalism or business, operating in the open enables the opportunity to collaborate with constituents.

We in journalism must recognize that Wikileaks is an element of a new ecosystem of news. It is a new form of the press. So we must defend its rights as media. If we do not, we could find our own rights curtailed. Asking whether Wikileaks should be stopped is exactly like asking whether this newspaper should be stopped when it reveals what
government does not want the public to know. We have been there before; let us never return.

Disliking the public

There are those in the press and government who don’t like or trust the public they serve. It is an unliberal attitude–which can come from Liberals, by the way–for it doesn’t buy the core belief of liberal democracy that the people properly rule. Two classic examples:

Here we have a German government official saying that it is his job to protect consumers from themselves. In other words, they don’t know best; he does. Nevermind what they do — giving up private data on Facebook or giving Google the highest market penetration anywhere — he says they should do something else. And so he’ll use his regulatory power to change their behavior to his expectation.

And here we have a columnist for the Observer (aka Guardian), Will Hutton, who says in a fit of journalistic hubris that the BBC is “the last bulwark against populist government by the mob.” So the BBC is what protects the public from itself. He further says, “The bile, unfairness and lack of restraint in the blogosphere is infecting the mainstream media and thus American politics.” Which is to say that the press and government were unsullied and free of bile and unfairness until these damned bloggers (read: citizens with tongues) came along to corrupt them.

In both cases, we simply see members of a power structure threatened by the emergence of a public with its own mind and voice. We thus see the conflict that arises out of the rise of publicness. That’s one of the topics I’m thinking through as I write my book.

A BBC loss

This one confuses me: Peter Barron, editor of the BBC’s flagship news program, Newsnight, where he has done by all accounts brilliant work, is leaving to work for Google — that part wouldn’t be surprising but it’s Google communications (read: PR) that he’ll be doing. I’ll be eager to see the Media Guardian explanation of this one.

Guardian column: The blown-up BBC

My Guardian column this week comes out of a tour of the reorganized BBC newsroom with its head, Peter Horrocks. Snippet:

As we stood there, one of many tours of the space was being held for online employees. “They keep asking who’s won,” Horrocks said – did TV take over because they are in TV’s space under a TV person? It had better not be that simple. If newsroom reorganisation – at any news operation – is about nothing more than shuffling desks, then it might as well be an exercise carried out on the deck of the Titanic. Later, Horrocks gave the real answer: “We’ve had to blow up BBC News to totally remake it.”

Blasted Broadcasting Corp.

In a case of any-enemy-of-yours-must-be-a-friend-of-mine, the Guardian PDA blog invites sworn enemy Edward Roussel, head of Telegraph digital, to comment on their mutual bete noir, the BBC, and a report of tremendous overspending on its digital efforts. Emily Bell, head of digital at the Guardian, and Jemima Kiss, doyenne of tech and media bloggers there, weigh in. So did I:

I know this is naive (and American) of me but I wonder about turning the discussion around and asking what the BBC can do as a platform to support diverse voices not controlled there, including those of the Telegraph, Guardian, Times, et al, not to mention bloggers and media and information entrepreneurs.

For example, shouldn’t you all be demanding access to the iPlayer?

Shouldn’t you demand access to any and all code created with license fees?

Shouldn’t the BBC make it part of its mission to support diverse and quality voices throughout media — again, commercial newspapers, blogs, podcasts, anything — with promotion, traffic, technology innovation, open-source invention (and even, as I suggested at the Online Publishers Association panel I moderated with the Guardian, the BBC, and Reuters, the BBC taking on ad sales of UK sites’ international traffic as it begins to sell ads internationally).

What if the BBC became an open network? What if you could build upon it the way many have built businesses atop Google?

I know that Ofcom (with Tom Loosemore) have been grappling with the question of what public-service publishing/broadcasting/internetting means. But how about this:

What if the BBC were to become the public-service platform?

Peter Day, podcast star

The BBC’s amazing Peter Day is the best reporter I know on the radio. As a story-teller, he stands alongside the U.S. radio icon, This American Life‘s Ira Glass. But his shows are entirely different; Peter reports on business and the world but with stories instead of numbers. He is a great interviewer and a genius at tying together his questions, answers, facts, and observations into a compelling narrative. I listen to his show on my iPod every week and play it for my students at CUNY as an example of both good interviewing and effective radio.

The Daily Mail is properly impressed that Peter’s In Business podcast is the top among BBC ‘casts, outdrawing even entertainment shows with big and expensive names: “More than 730,000 people downloaded Mr Day’s weekly podcast during September – 110,000 more than those who downloaded the second-placed show, Best of Chris Moyles, a weekly highlights compilation of his Radio 1 breakfast show. . . . Stephen Chilcott, the editor of In Business, said: ‘Peter may not be a household name but he’s an institution inside the BBC. People rave about him in their blogs and young entrepreneurs talk about him in hushed terms, saying he’s changed the way they think about business.’ ”

In the same edition, Peter writes with characteristic humility about how he does it and with characteristic eloquence about what radio really is:

Until now listeners have been remote: all we had was ratings to tell us who was listening, and a few appreciative or moaning letters. Now we have a new democracy of broadcasting: listening habits made manifest, ratings created by listeners making an active desision to download a particular programme.

Radio is music, chat and news but most of all it is ideas, and podcasting is going some way to redefine the ideas that interest our listeners. Podcasting is a new kind of listening, much more active and involved than merely sitting back to wait for what comes next.

It makes us broadcasters think much harder about who what and why we are talking to. It moves broadcasting much closer to conversation.

I wonder how many broadcasters in the U.S. would think that radio is about ideas but, of course, it is. If it’s only about sound, as too many of our stations are, it’s boring.

(Here is Peter’s show about blogs, featuring me talking so fast I scared even myself.)

You assign the journalists

This is cool: After joining in a blogfest at the BBC this week, the editor of the showcase news program (programme, I should say while I’m here) took a suggestion to heart and handed over a bit of control to the people formerly known as his audience. The BBC’s Jem Stone explains:

One of the guest speakers; Jeff Jarvis, suggested at the beginning when being gently grilled by BBC tech correspondent; Rory Cellan Jones, that news organisations should be commissioned or assigned by their audience to go report on stories.

As it happens one of the guests at the back was Peter Barron, from Newsnight who it appears was quite taken with this idea. The Newsnight blog that afternoon…

“You can tell our editor’s just returned from a blogging conference. Fresh faced and with fists clenched, he’s pushing another Newsnight experiment in audience participation. It’s quite simple – opening up the Newsnight running order to the people who watch us.”

And so for the past three mornings; Newsnight’s daily output editor has been sharing with users their morning email to the production team outlining the potential running order for that night’s programme. . . .

I don’t know how long that NN will keep to this approach but Peter, in a comment to the blog post on wednesday highlights how the running order changed that night to include a story about lifestyle/cancer risk.

“We won’t always be able to oblige – tomorrow for example we have a long film from Mark Urban in Pakistan whether you like it or not – but there’s no doubt that what you tell us will help us form our thoughts. If you’d rather leave it to us that’s fine, if you’re worried that what others say is unrepresentative get on here and lobby for what you’d like to see us do.”

Radio 4’s new iPM programme has gone even further and has been sharing the actual running order from the BBC’s internal news cps for this magazine show. iPM doesn’t air for another 10 days but they’ve been doing pilots leading up to the launch.

What’s doubly gratifying is eeing the helpful comments viewers make. The BBC asks for other stories and possible treatments and the people oblige. A few examples:

* How about covering the ‘creativity’ in education report from the Commons education committee. I find it astonishing that creativity isn’t an integral part of a child’s school and college experience.

* the election hypothetical just sounds desperate. [This refers to a story in the rundown.]

* I think you should cover the WCRF report on lifestyle / cancer risk. I especially like the direct comments about reducing red meat and cutting out processed meat entirely (BACON!?): surely the meat industry have something to say about this? [This refers to the story that was big in papers in London saying that eating bacon and such can kill you]

Dan, an editor on the show, responds:

Thanks for the suggestions. In particular the World Cancer Research Fund report on the links between lifestyle and cancer has attracted lots of interest. Their recommendations seem pretty harsh – try not to gain weight as an adult, avoid sugary drinks, alcohol and bacon. Are they serious? Do these reports do any good or do people just switch off? It would be good to cover this tonight if possible. What do you think?

A viewer responds to him:

The WCRF report is really interesting because it’s not a ‘new study’ – lots of comments on the main story are saying “enough with the new, conflicting advice” – but instead this report brings together all the advice over 50 years and comes up with some pretty stark conclusions. And they’re deadly serious! Whether people have had enough of being drip fed seemingly conflicting advice is another important issue.

And the viewers are grateful for this opportunity:

Wow! We have an interactive Newsnight. There are so many channels that let the viewer decide what they want to see, but it’s the first time I’ve seen it done for a news programme, and I love it. What I’d really like to see is Jeremy grilling Gordon Brown on his latest fiasco – the numbers of migrants in the UK! Failing that GB could talk about his upcoming role in The Simpsons :-)

And then here’s Peter Barron, the boss, with the bottom line: The viewers had an impact:

Thanks for all the suggestions today – I’m not sure what you make of this experiment but we were pleased, and have included the cancer story in tonight’s programme as a result.

Bravo.