‘Leave your opinions at the door’: BBC boss on his mission to transform journalism

Jonathan Munro is deputy chief executive of BBC News, and the director of journalism across the entire BBC. 

He has been at the BBC for the past decade, before which he spent close to three decades at ITN, covering three wars, two Olympic Games, and reporting from far-flung regions around the world.

Munro is in Australia for South by Southwest, and spoke to Mumbrella yesterday about the ever-changing face of journalism in an age where trust in news outlets is at a nadir, fake news abounds, and political lines have never been so divided.

You’ve been in journalism for decades: you were at ITN for 26 years, you’ve been all over the world, you’ve covered wars, you’ve covered Olympic Games. How has the role changed in that time, both in how journalism is perceived, and also the day-to-day operations?

Let me point out two things that have changed massively in that time. The first is that we are much more nimble, because technology has changed hugely. So we can go and deploy and bring live coverage with an iPhone — when I started, iPhones hadn’t been thought of — so you travelled in those days, much more heavily. And now we’re much more nimble. And therefore, you got to think more quickly, because the time constraints that you work under are much more challenging than they were in the days when everything took hours and hours to technically resolve, or whatever.

And that means that the values have got to be consistent, but the timeframe in which you’ve got to make judgments around those values is definitely much more challenging.

Secondly — the two things are related, I guess — media is now a multi-platform, very plural world, where lots of different media organisations are pumping out information online. And it’s available to consumers, literally at the touch of a button in their hand. And so audiences habits change massively from appointment-to-view bulletins, which were a kind of prerequisite for people who wanted to know what was going on in the world, to an ability to ingest news and information in a million different ways. That, of course, comes with the challenge of discerning things that are true, from things that are either partial or flatly untrue. And that’s a massive, massive change in in the industry, and a big opportunity for brands like the BBC, because we rely very much on trust and impartiality. But it’s a big challenge to rise to.

As you mentioned, the BBC is a very trusted outlet, for very good reasons. How do you maintain that trust when you’ve got to get stories up quickly, but you’ve also got to verify the accuracy of these stories. Fake news is everywhere, it’s hard to verify things. How do you do that, while still being first to a story?

Well, when it comes to a choice between being first or being right, I would always rather be right. Accuracy is more important to us than speed. That does not mean to say that speed isn’t important. Of course, you want to be breaking your own news lines and setting the pace on a story. But not if it results in compromising on your accuracy, which in the end erodes trust. So verification can take time, and it can build delays into processes as you check and recheck facts or images, or you assess claims for their veracity, or the counterclaims for their veracity. That can take time, because we’re relying on human judgment to make that work.

There are lots of stories where two things are not in conflict, speed and accuracy come together. And I’m thinking particularly of live reporting; if you are on the scene of a of an incident and you’re reporting live, then, by definition, you’re not building any delays into that and that takes you right back to authentication and verification, because there’s nothing better in terms of verification than knowing that your own journalist is seeing something.

If your own journalist is the witness, then you don’t need to do further verification; you know that what they’ve seen is true. And that’s why the BBC has presence around the world, in Israel and Gaza, or in Ukraine, or in India, or Pakistan, or wherever it might be. That’s absolutely invaluable. And it’s the heart of the trust that offers audiences.

In a similar vein, how do you check your journalist’s biases. There are a lot of right wing and left wing news outlets that seem to be kind of reporting with an agenda. How do you make sure that individual journalists aren’t doing that within the BBC framework?

You know, that that’s sort of drummed into BBC journalists from from the get-go, from day one. And we have a simple phrase for that: “You leave your opinions at the door. All human beings have opinions; you can’t say to someone, you know, ‘take a scalpel out and carve out your opinions from your own personal being’.

We all have lived experiences and lifestyle preferences, and so on. And we’re all entitled, in democracies, to exercise a vote — whether it’s for a political party, or in a referendum, or whatever it might be — that is a right that those of us who live in the free world enjoy.

So, no-one says you cannot have views, but we do say you can’t express or display those views. And impartiality is really, really important. It’s the bedrock of what we do. So I don’t want to know how many of my colleagues exercise their vote, I don’t want to know what they think about a story. I want them to challenge positions on stories of all different hues and colours.

And if we did suspect that a member of staff was displaying some partisan opinions in a way that the audience could tell, then, obviously, we would deal with that, but it’s really central to the BBC News values, that that is not something that displays itself in their work.

And I think, by and large, because we’re not we’re not funded by a profit-and-loss shareholder system, we’re not paid for directly by any government, we have the ability, that sort of privilege, really, to have a special space in the media landscape, which encourages impartiality. Indeed, it relies on impartiality.

Are there any nascent trends that you can see blowing up over the next five-to-ten years, in terms of news-gathering, and reporting?

You mentioned fake news a little bit earlier in this conversation. And, I think I’m a big optimist about the world of journalism. I think more and more people are aware that things that are out there are not necessarily true just because they’re out there. So, raising the awareness of misinformation and disinformation is a big, big part of what we do, both by busting myths, and putting some facts behind claims and counterclaims. And also by telling people we’re doing it. We’ve launched a brand recently called BBC Verify, which is designed to display to audiences that we are going through checks and diligence before exhibiting our journalism to them.

We can do all the work in the world behind the scenes, and that has a big, big value. But it’s much more helpful if, at the same time, we tell people we are doing that; we are transparent about the processes we’re going through. And that, incidentally, involves being transparent about telling the audiences what we don’t know. Because being honest about what we don’t know is part of the fuller picture. These are these long-term behavioural patterns that we need to play a part in making sure of, that we double down on our values, that we ensure that verified impartial journalism is core to what we offer.

And that applies whether you’re watching the BBC News account on Tiktok, or you’re coming to the BBC News website, or you’re watching the global news channel.

It doesn’t matter where you’re getting it, the values need to be the same.


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