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Media companies need to get serious about journalism after Trump and Brexit fiascos says BBC Global News CEO

BBC Global NewsMedia companies that consider themselves committed to responsible journalism should – and will – adopt a more impartial and balanced approach in their reporting in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s election as US President, the chief executive of BBC Global News has predicted.

Jim Egan said he expects media firms, many of whom were caught out by Trump’s victory, lost sight of his support base and derided his bid for the White House, to reflect on their coverage and return to “old fashioned” values of quality journalism.

Speaking with Mumbrella, Egan added that news organisations have been too “precious” in deciding which political figures are palatable and who should or shouldn’t be interviewed or given air time.

Egan, asked about the media’s coverage of the US election, said it raised “significant questions” over whether the media is “over populated with the liberal elite who just don’t get it”.

One of those under fire for its approach, The New York Times, has written to subscribers asking whether it, and other news outlets, had underestimated the support for Trump. Its publisher, Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr, and executive editor, Dean Baque, also vowed to “rededicate ourselves to the fundamental mission of Times journalism”.

Egan said: “One of the things that is very likely is that organisations that consider themselves committed to responsible journalism are going to conclude there needs to be more in the newspaper, online and on screen, saying this is what is really happening, exploring claims, exploding myths and giving people a sense of what they can believe and rely on.

“We are going to see a consensus that things got a bit out of control both in the UK (for the EU referendum) and US.

“If you want to be taken seriously, you need to be serious about some of those old-fashioned ideas of journalism and what journalism is there to do in terms of holding people and claims to account. I am sure there will be a move back towards that.”

While such content may not draw as many readers as might skewed coverage and headline-grabbing stories, there was no doubt it was the right approach, he said.

“Is that as popular in terms of generating clicks as some of the other ways of garnering audience? Perhaps not. But if the BBC has to choose between building an audience and sustaining its reputation, it’s pretty clear which way we are going to go.”

The comments follow those of GroupM global head Irwin Gotlieb, who said at the CASBAA conference in Macau that media agencies and owners were complicit in the election of Trump.  “As the guys who dole out clients’ money, we ensure it gets spent on media that attracts audiences. Media owners chase the story that creates the most attention. We create our own monsters, and we have to deal with that,” he said.

Asked if Gotlieb’s views may prompt brands to start advertising against trusted media brands, rather than with those which adopt clickbait tactics, Egan said: “There is some mileage in that. In the end brands and marketers are in the trust business. It is your number one calling card. It’s not as glitzy or flashy as some other ways of presenting your commercial credentials but I think it is under valued.

“It is something we will continue to emphasise and if there is going to be some repositioning or backlash or market correction than that may be to our advantage. We do it because we believe in it fundamentally and we hope it’s got commercial mileage.”

Egan said he was pleased with the BBC’s coverage of the Trump-Clinton race, saying it did not call the election and sent reporters to the US interior “trying to understand what was going on”.

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Egan: “If the BBC has to choose between building an audience and sustaining its reputation, it’s clear which way we are going to go”

Many other news outlets – particularly in the US – have been accused of failing to take Trump, or his supporters seriously.

“I don’t know what soul searching is going on at CNN or the New York Times or anywhere else in the US,” he said.

“Maybe people feel like they did get it wrong and called it wrong and took the wrong approach. We have our own versions of those conversations but – and I don’t want to sound complacent – there are some things we didn’t do over the past six months that I am glad we didn’t do – calling the election for example. In our small way we didn’t do a bad job of going around inner America trying to understand what was going on.

Egan added: “We discovered on June 23 (the date of the UK referendum on EU membership) the sort of conventional view about what may have happened in the referendum could not be relied on.

“That effected the way we tried to connect with what was happening with the Trump movement rather than doing the easy thing which was dismissing this as a TV celebrity who surely wouldn’t last.

“And as you look ahead at the Dutch, French and German elections next year, no one is saying anything is impossible anymore.”

But while the BBC must demonstrate impartiality, as set out in its charter, Egan warned against the dangers of “false balance”, where two sides of an argument are simply presented equally. It is up to the media to dissect and explore claims and present the facts, he said.

“False balance runs the risk of ‘he said that, she said that, make your own mind up’. Avoiding that, and the notion of remaining impartial, is a very tricky line for us to tread.

“But there has to be a role for notions of accuracy and whether you can believe someone or not.

“If you want to continue to be considered part of a serious, responsible segment of journalism then with the influence that we’d all like to have comes a significant degree of responsibility. And that means avoiding falling into traps of false balance and it means being a bit more confident about what journalists are good at, which is exploding myths, calling people out and holding individuals, and claims, to account.

“That is what we need to do and that is what audiences are going to expect. Where else is that going to come from?”

Egan said the media should be responsible for contributing to an “adult conversation” and suggested there was an industry-wide view “that we may have been too precious about people who are or aren’t acceptable” to interview.

“We have to look at what is happening around the western world and reflect those views and population sentiments,” he argued. “The BBC took a lot of stick for broadcasting an interview with Marine Le Pen (leader of the far right National Front in France) because it was Remembrance Sunday. There were quite a few shrill calls asking: ‘what the hell is the BBC doing giving air time to this individual?’.

“But she is a serious presidential candidate who, whether you like it or not, is representing, or seems to be garnering support, among a significant minority of the French voting public that could see her carried into the Élysée next year.

“If you’re from a far right Austrian party that people in liberal media elite consider to be beyond the pale, but happens to be elected as president of an EU member state country, it is not really for us to say that person does not merit TV or digital air time. The BBC is always very wary of deciding certain people can or can’t be interviewed.

“The sense of an adult conversation is really important because hiding from it or rejecting it because you decide to occupy an echo chamber that won’t even countenance those views, that is not how you move the debate forward.”

Meanwhile, Egan admitted it was a tough time for the industry in terms of funding quality journalism in an environment of tumbling ad revenues. But he remained optimistic that the desire for such content remained strong with readers.

He described the financial operation of BBC Global News as both “comfortable and uncomfortable”.

“We run a break-even model so we have the virtue of not having quarterly earnings targets, but also the discomfort of knowing we can’t run at a loss,” he said. “It’s an editorially-led business rather than financially-led but we can’t rely on licence fee funding so we have to generate sufficient revenue to cover costs and editorial investments.

“We are clearly at a very significant moment both in terms of public trust and funding of journalism, and the BBC will always be under huge financial pressure. But I look around and I don’t see too many people making bucket loads of cash in the quality journalism industry and those who claim they are are probably lying, so this is a tough place to be. But you have to be hopeful.”

New digital media players are also under pressure, Egan claimed, with the early carefree days giving way to the more serious – and problematic task – of making money.

“I slightly get the impression that some of those organisations may have had quite a fun time in the early years while they were being funded by private equity and venture capital,” he said.

“Their job was to establish an audience base and grow a brand reputation. It’s possible that fun phase is coming to an end as those funders start to ask ‘how do we start getting our money back? How is this actually going to pay its way?'”

For the BBC, Egan said native advertising and content marketing are strong revenue drivers, with digital revenue climbing 40% over the past 12 months. But he conceded the corporation moved “warily” into the space because of the historical separation between commercial and editorial content.

Such separation was “easy to police”, but complexities can arise when the two become, to some extent, integrated.

“We are very careful about the badging so audiences are never in two minds about where it has come from. If it’s not good enough to run under the BBC’s own standalone name then we are very wary about associating with an advertiser.

“The quality threshold has to be high. No one likes a shoddy advertorial.”

Steve Jones

 

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