About Stewart Purvis

Formerly: CEO and Editor-in-Chief of ITN,President of EuroNews,Ofcom Partner for Content and Standards,Visiting Professor of Broadcast Media at Oxford University,Professor of Television Journalism at City University London,Advisor to House of Lords Committee on Communications. Currently: Non-executive director of Channel Four Corporation,Trustee of SSVC, Chairman of Royal Television Society TV Journalism Awards,co-author of 'Guy Burgess -the Spy Who Knew Everyone' and creator of 'The Hampstead Spies' guided walk.

News just in: in a digital world where entertainment is everywhere people want TV news.

For years we TV news hacks have been told by ‘proper’ TV people that in a digital world where people can get news everywhere what viewers really want from television is entertainment. Comedian John Bishop assured viewers during his week on The Nightly Show which displaced ITV News at Ten why would they want to watch bad news when they could have a laugh with him.
Now the numbers are in and they show that in a digital world where you can get entertainment everywhere (Netflix subscribers are averaging an hour a day there alone) what many people want is news and news they can trust.
The Quarter One 2017 ratings for TV viewing show the BBC 1 News audience has increased at 1pm, 6pm and 10pm. With the decline in total TV viewing highest in the TV news averse 16-24 year-olds and non-existent in the news loving 65 plus audience, the proportion of linear TV watchers that choose news is going up not down.
The figures also show that ITV’s experiment replacing news at 10pm hasn’t worked. This is probably the best evidence yet that the old assumptions are wrong.
1. The Nightly Show averaged about one and a half million viewers compared with the two million ITV News had been getting in that slot. ITV’s share of people watching TV at that time of evening fell from the 12% who watched news to 9% for entertainment . According to analysis by Broadcast magazine the hoped for increase in younger audiences  resulted in the grand total of just 37,000 extra young viewers.
2. As is often the case, the ratings inheritance from the previous programmes was important. The Nightly Show’s biggest audiences, the only time it reached two million, were all after the very successful drama series ‘Broadchurch’. But ITV News has similarly done well, in fact even better, after big shows like ‘I’m a Celebrity’ when it sometimes got three million viewers.
3. At 10.30pm the audience of about one million for ITV News was half what it was at 10.00pm. Those who did watch were very loyal normally staying with the programme until the end compared with the normal drop off in news audiences at ten on BBC and ITV. This benefitted the regional news which follows ITV News although its overall ratings were similarly dragged down by the Nightly Show effect.

It can, of course, be argued that the problem was the Nightly Show itself. One of the rota
of presenters,Jason Manford, wrote on his Facebook page that he had challenged
the production team ‘’Being funny isn’t enough’. Viewers might have responded ‘Being
funny would have been a start’.
Leafing through the TV ratings books to try to monitor the failure of ‘The Nightly Show’
helped me to stumble across a wider truth. We shouldn’t be surprised that news
gets more viewers than entertainment and drama because, it turns out, that often happens nowadays.
Take the week beginning 6th March 2017. In that week the ITV Evening News at six thirty got an average audience of 3.37 million viewers. That was higher than, for example, ITV’s new prime-time entertainment shows such as ‘Little Big Shots’,’Play to the Whistle’ and ‘Harry Hill’s Alien Fun Capsule’. It was also higher than the imported American drama ‘Lethal Weapon’ and the travelogue ‘Schofield’s South African Adventure’. It is the same story on BBC1 where news audiences are much higher. Apart from the high-rating soaps and the high cost dramas on BBC 1 and ITV, news is just as likely as entertainment to be in the three or four million range that is now more like the norm in early and mid-evening and it is much cheaper. On Tuesday 25th April the ITV News at 1830 with three and a half million viewers was the second highest show on the network all day, only Emmerdale had more, and nothing else in prime time even got three million.
So where does that leave the later evening news on ITV now returned to its normal slot at ten? We’ve only had a few days so far and the headline is that the news is back doing better business than The Nightly Show did but not surprisingly some loyal news viewers who deserved a medal for keeping track of its time slot have got lost along the way and the audience is down by an average of ten per cent on what it was before ‘the experiment’.
The failure of the Nightly Show at ten may have helped us realise some new truths about viewers’ preferences but if if anything it has made ITV’s problem in that time slot even worse.

Why I fear for the future of party leaders TV debates in UK elections.

“We won’t be doing television debates”. Theresa May adopted the royal ‘we’ to confirm that she wouldn’t be taking part in any 2017 General Election leaders debates. Strictly accurately by saying ‘we’ she wasn’t correct, plenty of Conservatives will take part in debates with counterparts from other parties on national,regional and local television and radio over the coming two months.

But what we won’t get this time is what we had for the first time in 2010, the leaders of the three largest political parties in the UK parliament facing each other and debating together. We didn’t really have it in 2015 where David Cameron’s tactics meant that there was a variety of formats, none of them the three leaders head to head without any other party leaders. In one ‘debate’ David Cameron and Ed Miliband appeared in the same Sky News-Channel Four programme but were interviewed separately.

The best indication of the mood of resignation amongst broadcasters was summed up by the BBC’s Media Editor Amol Rajan who posted on Facebook today ‘TV Debates during elections can be good for democracy. But I totally get why for Theresa May, it makes no sense whatsoever to agree to them’. Saying it makes ‘ no sense’ for a politician to agree to debate their policies before voters on national television seems a bit far for the BBC’s own media man to go but he is free to depart from the corporate line (once there is one).

However it suggests there won’t be much appetite inside the BBC for so-called ’empty-chairing’, inviting all three party leaders  into the studio and going ahead with whoever turns up even if it is only Jeremy Corbyn and Tim Farron.  There was a moment in 2015 when this was an option discussed by broadcasters as a tactic to deal with an evasive David Cameron but in a process never fully reported or revealed the BBC did a deal with the Conservative Party which avoided an empty chair but gave us a range of formats, few of them worthy of remembering.

Other broadcasters could still have gone ahead with their own empty chairing but none did. This time, according to Media Guardian, ‘The BBC and ITV are pushing ahead with plans for leaders’ debates in the run-up to the general election’ ..News executives at the BBC and ITV confirmed they were “working hard” on plans to televise the debates between leaders because of the “overwhelming” public interest in doing so. ITV has even announced that “ITV will hold a leaders’ debate as we did in 2010 and 2015. We will announce more details in due course.”  But when I read in Media Guardian that neither BBC or ITV ‘ want to antagonise the prime minister or any other leader and have made it clear that they are willing to work on reaching an agreement for all’ this suggests a re-definition of what is a ‘leader’ and no empty chairing.

I wouldn’t rule out one broadcaster,possibly Sky News, coming up with some original idea/stunt  but there’s little sign this particular lady is for turning on this particular core point. In the current climate where election fatigue seems to have exhausted voters before the campaign even begins ,what is the pressure that would make her change her mind?

And that is the number one reason why I think it may be a long time before we see again what we saw in 2010.  In the euphoria then at how the debates had brought politics alive for a young generation we feared would never be interested I cautioned that we should never assume it would be the same in every future election. I cited the 16 year gap after the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon debate before the Republican and Democrat presidential candidates debated again.

I take little joy in saying my fears have been realised. The reasons:

1.It just needs one Prime Minister to say ‘I’m not going to do them at all’ rather than ‘There are too many of them’ or ‘They are too near voting day’ or  conversely ‘There aren’t enough leaders in the debate’ (yes,David Cameron did say that) and it emboldens future PMs to just say no. Theresa May has done that. On twitter today I asked ‘It was 16 years after Kennedy-Nixon debates before next Dem-Rep one in US,how long till another Con-Lab-LD leaders election debate in UK? Among the replies:‘Until the incumbent PM feels they could gain rather than lose votes by taking part?Sadly cynical..’   @helen_purvis (parental pride allowed).

2. Even if a future Prime Minister agrees, there is no agreed way of defining who should and shouldn’t take part in such debates. In 2010 the broadcasters chose Labour,Tory and the Liberal Democrats claiming they were the three parties whose leaders had a chance of becoming Prime Minister. Trouble is it wasn’t true. Thanks to the first-past-the-post electoral system the Liberal Democrats had no realistic chance of winning and even with the ‘I agree with Nick’ momentum from the debates were still miles away from  being the largest party. They did of course became part of a coalition government but other parties with seats in the Commons might have been involved in coalitions under different hypothetical electoral arithmetic and that didn’t give them a place in the 2010 debates. The American way is for a Commission to set a criteria for taking part which is normally done by specifying  a minimum ranking in the opinion polls. There has been no appetite in the UK for a Commission or such a criteria which would  logically  lead to what broadcasters would privately prefer ,a head to head between the leaders of the two largest parties.

3.Things have got even more complicated when  it comes to comparing ‘third’ parties. UKIP has often overtaken the Liberal Democrats in the polls, arguably making them the most popular third party across the UK although they no longer have a parliamentary seat. The Greens still have a seat but a lower ranking in the polls. The SNP are by far the largest third party measured by seats in the UK Parliament but inevitably no ranking in a UK  wide poll. And all this at a time when the issue of broadcasting to the nations and regions of the UK is more politically sensitive than it has ever been.

 

 

 

 

MI5 files show why they thought they’d found a sixth Cambridge KGB spy.

The latest release of MI5 files to the National Archives is reported in some of this morning’s UK papers (12th April 2017) and in a good blog on the National Archives website by Dr Richard Dunley http://blog.nationalarchives.gov.uk/blog/paddy-costello-soviet-spy-political-intellectual/

Surprisingly there is little or no mention of the fact that the man MI5 was so sure was a KGB agent, Desmond ‘Paddy’ Costello, would have been the sixth Cambridge spy they detected rather late in the day. ‘The Cambridge Five’, all bright young men from ‘good families’ studying at Trinity College or nearby Trinity Hall, were Kim Philby,Guy Burgess,Donald Maclean,Anthony Blunt and John Cairncross. Costello, a New Zealander, was doing a post -graduate degree at Trinity College in the 1930s when the Cambridge Communist cell was at its busiest. He knew Burgess and Philby who went on to become full-blooded spies and James Klugman who helped to recruit Cairncross as a spy. Klugman would later describe Costello as ‘one good comrade’.

Unlike Burgess,Philby and some other Cambridge Communists, Costello had a PF (Personal File) at MI5 while still a student. In October 1934 he donated £5 to the Communist Party newspaper the Daily Worker via a letter from a friend to CP headquarters in London. The letter only described him as ‘Comrade Costello who is at present in Germany’ but that was enough to get MI5 started on the trail. Using passport records they identified him as a student at Trinity  who in the words of MI5 chief Sir Vernon Kell ‘has come under Left intellectual influence during his time at college’. Kell consulted the police in New Zealand  who reported back that letters which Costello had sent from Berlin to his mother in Auckland showed ‘that her son is very much against the Nazi movement’.
After Cambridge Costello was appointed as a lecturer in classics at what was then known as The University College of the South West, later the University of Exeter. He and his wife, Bella or ‘Bi’, the daughter of Jewish immigrants from Russia, both joined the Exeter Communist Party. Costello took time off from lectures in 1937 to travel to Bombay carrying a gift of £500 from the British Communist Party to its Indian counterpart.
Costello’s academic career came to a sudden halt in 1940 when, as the files reveal, the Principal of the University College of the South West,Dr John Murray, wrote to the Chief Constable of Exeter to report that ‘I have today suspended Mr Costello from the service of the college’. MI5 were ‘quite clear from the Chief Constable’s file that this was on account of his Communist views’. Two days before his suspension an Exeter student who Costello knew well had been sentenced at the Old Bailey to six months in prison under the Official Secrets Act. The Council of the college later called upon Costello to resign and he did. Two other Exeter students were sent down for their Communist activities.
Now unemployed, Costello joined up and was promoted to a Captain in the New Zealand forces. In 1944 he was discharged in order to take up the post of Second Secretary at the New Zealand legation in Moscow. MI5 were told that ‘in spite of his left-wing tendencies he was selected for the post on account of his knowledge of Russian and his academic record’.

Roger Hollis of MI5 began an MI5 campaign to get Costello sacked. He contacted the Dominions Office in Downing Street which was the link with what later became the ‘White Commonwealth’ countries. By coincidence a former Cambridge left-winger of the same period, the splendidly titled Francis Edward Hovell-Thurlow-Cumming-Bruce, better known as Francis Cumming-Bruce, was working at the Dominions Office and vouched for Costello as a ‘decent, honest man, who like many undergraduates was seriously interested in Communism’. Coincidentally Cumming-Bruce went on to become the British High Commissioner in New Zealand, his own youthful interest in Communism having been forgiven or overlooked.

Hollis then got the Dominions Office to write to the New Zealand High Commission in London about the Exeter episode to say that Costello’s ‘close association with the man convicted necessarily raises a doubt whether he is a safe and suitable person to be employed by the New Zealand Government in his present capacity’. The High Commission wrote back to say that Costello had been ‘interviewed and as far as possible vetted by the Prime Minister’. He had an excellent war record that showed ‘he could be relied upon’. But they were not aware of Costello’s dismissal in Exeter and would raise it with the New Zealand Prime Minister. Later MI5 followed up by pointing out that Costello’s wife ‘still apparently a member of the Communist Party’ was on her way to Moscow to join her husband.
The New Zealanders did not take kindly to being reminded again about the Costello case. He was ‘one of the best people the New Zealand Department (of External Affairs) had’ and the advice from Wellington at the end of the war was that it would be ’wise not to pursue the question of Costello with the Department of External Affairs any further’.
Imagine Roger Hollis’s reaction at the Savoy Hotel in London four years later, in 1949, when a New Zealand diplomat told him that Costello was now being promoted to Charge d’Affaires in Moscow after the New Zealand Prime Minister decided Costello was ‘trustworthy’.

The following year Costello was promoted again, this time to a post in Paris, but on a trip back to New Zealand he went out drinking with old friends, was arrested for drunkenness and ‘spent the night in the cooler’.While there some remarks he made ‘caused the police sergeant to consider he possessed Communist views’,what Hollis called ‘in vino veritas’ evidence.

Eventually the New Zealand Government, constantly lobbied by the British and by now in the shadow of the defection of Burgess and Maclean in 1951, found it convenient to  force Costello out. He returned to academia but this time at the rather more exalted rank of a Professor, as Chair in Slavonic Studies at Manchester University.

MI5 now zeroed in on him and his wife. The files show the extraordinary lengths they went to in order to find evidence about ‘Desmond Patrick COSTELLO and Bella COSTELLO, who are known to have been Communists in the past, are suspected of working for the Russian Intelligence Service. It is desired to investigate their current activities and contacts.’ Among the documents is a very home-made ‘Map of Costello’s Home Area’ near Manchester and hour-by-hour reports from those MI5 and police men tasked with following the Costellos around the streets of Manchester and London .

At the end of it all MI5 had two things that convinced them the couple were spies but which would never have been enough for a court conviction. Mr Costello was seen having clandestine meetings with two Soviet officials believed to be intelligence officers and Mrs Costello’s handwriting was ‘written proof’ linking her to a document which could have been used to transfer the identities of long dead children to KGB spies.

Desmond ‘Paddy’ Costello died unexpectedly from coronary thrombosis in 1964 aged 52. MI5 closed their file without ever finding clear-cut evidence that they’d got their ‘sixth man’

 

 

‘Fox/Sky’ looks like a done deal but the goings-on at Fox News keep rocking the boat.

Your know your channel is in big trouble when 18 advertisers/sponsors don’t want their names mentioned anywhere near your biggest talent because of a sexual harassment scandal. Not to mention the arrival of the third law suit from black female members of staff alleging racial discrimination. Those are just some of the problems facing Rupert Murdoch at Fox News in New York. Just as well that here in the UK the deadline has now passed for submissions to Ofcom on the proposed acquisition by Twenty-First Century Fox,Inc of the shares in Sky plc does it not already own. My own view from the start has been that this is a process that politically needs to be seen to be done and that the deal will go through.
So if I was Rupert Murdoch I would now be asking ‘would those people at Fox News please stop rocking the boat’. The problem is that he’s very much the captain of that particularly troubled ship and that there are definitely echoes of the phone-hacking scandal.
The DCMS Secretary,Karen Bradley, has asked Ofcom to report by 16 May on three issues:
1. ‘The need, in relation to every different audience in the United Kingdom or in a particular area or locality of the United Kingdom, for there to be a sufficient plurality of persons with control of the media enterprises serving that audience’
2.’The need for persons carrying on media enterprises, and for those with control of such enterprises, to have a genuine commitment to the attainment in relation to broadcasting of the standards objectives set out in section 319 of the Communications Act 2003’
3.Ofcom has an ongoing duty under the same Act ‘to be satisfied that the holders of broadcast licences are fit and proper to be licensed’.
The argument for letting the deal go ahead is that last time round in 2011 all the regulatory hoops had been jumped through and it was only the politics triggered by phone-hacking at Murdoch’s papers that did for his long cherished ambition to bring all his broadcasting assets in the US,UK,Germany and Italy under one corporate roof. Since 2011 Murdoch’s share of the UK media has got smaller and his empire is now divided into separate though connected print and TV companies. In addition Ofcom’s metrics for measuring Murdoch’s share of the cross-platform news cake have always been arguable.
On the ‘fit and proper test’, Twenty-First Century Fox already has Ofcom licences in the UK for TV channels  and Ofcom has never previously suggested Fox were not ‘fit and proper persons’ so why now?
So if the regulatory course is set for a smooth run what’s the problem? Simply put it is that the wider lessons of last time don’t seem to have been learned and at the Fox News Channel there are beginning to be parallels with the phone-hacking affair. That has possible implications for the ‘commitment to broadcasting standards’ part of the Ofcom brief.
We even have a potential candidate for the investigative role played in revealing phone-hacking by the Guardian reporter Nick Davies. His name is Gabriel Sherman and his work is well worth following at @gabrielsherman. Sherman is a contributing editor at New York magazine and a regular broadcaster, sometimes at Fox News’s left-of-centre equivalent MSNBC.
In 2014 Sherman wrote a best-selling biography about the founding CEO of Fox News Channel,Roger Ailes, called ‘The Loudest Voice in the Room: How the Brilliant, Bombastic Roger Ailes Built Fox News – and Divided a Country’. This alleged that Ailes had offered a television producer a pay increase if she would sleep with him. Fox News strongly denied the allegation. Since then Sherman has chronicled the subsequent goings on at Fox News.
In 2016 a former Fox News anchor,Gretchen Carlson, filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against Ailes. Ailes denied it. New York magazine later reported that after an internal review of the evidence against Ailes, Rupert Murdoch and his sons Lachlan and James decided Ailes had to go but couldn’t agree on the timing. Then one of the network’s stars Megyn Kelly, perhaps best known outside the U.S. for confronting Donald Trump with his own attitude to women, told investigators that Ailes had made “unwanted sexual advances toward her” at the start of her career.
New York magazine reported that the Murdochs had given Ailes an ultimatum—resign by August 1 or be fired. He resigned and reportedly received a pay-off of 40 million dollars. Rupert Murdoch succeeded him as chairman and as interim CEO.
In a recent interview on the ‘Trumpcast’ podcast ( also recommended) Gabriel Sherman offered these thoughts on what Murdoch wants to do with Fox News:
‘Fox News was the one part of his empire that for much of its history he really had very little to do with. His relationship with Roger Ailes was chummy at times but there was a competitive aspect to it and Ailes throughout his nearly 20 years running Fox News created a lot of headaches for Murdoch.
‘Now that Ailes is gone,what I hear from people inside Murdoch’s world is that he wants to show everyone that Roger Ailes was not as central as people like to think and that Rupert Murdoch really had the guts and the foresight to create Fox News. He’s spending all of his time now working out of Roger Ailes’ former office, he personally decided to promote Tucker Carlson to the 9 o’clock show , so this is Murdoch’s time to put his stamp on Fox News. He would like nothing more than to show Roger Ailes ’listen under my watch the ratings were actually better than when you ran Fox News’.
‘Since Trump’s ‘inauguration there has been a very strategic direction from the top down by Rupert Murdoch that Fox will be the in-house channel for the Trump White House. All stories have be filtered through the prism of whether they help Trump or not.’
Sherman thinks that this is partly driven by Murdoch’s wish to beat Ailes’ ratings but partly very personal. He says Murdoch has never had a close relationship with a recent US President, even though he met all of them and Fox News supported George W Bush. ‘It was never the case that Murdoch had the President of the United States on speed-dial and that is now what Rupert Murdoch has achieved with Donald Trump’.
Measured by ratings, profits and closeness to President Trump the new era could be judged to be going well for Murdoch but there have been a catalogue of problems that range from editorial issues to a federal investigation and can often be traced back to the man Murdoch left to run Fox News.
Sherman has reported how, for example, ‘a grand jury in Manhattan will be hearing new testimony in a federal investigation of Fox News… and people familiar with the investigation say the government is looking into a number of potential crimes, including Fox News’ alleged surveillance of journalists, and whether network executives misled investors by hiding Ailes’s sexual-harassment settlements’.
The Financial Times has reported that the former Chief Financial Officer of Fox News,Mark Kranz,has been offered immunity to cooperate with prosecutors.
In a process reminiscent of the post phone-hacking scandal deal-making, Fox News is now making a series of financial settlements,  some with their own employees who are suing them. One recent lawsuit alleges racial discrimination. More claims were reported to be on their way and indeed they were.
The New York Times reported that Fox News’s most famous and controversial anchor man, Bill O’Reilly, had paid out thirteen million dollars million in secret settlements to five women who had alleged that he harassed them. The Times duly noted that Mr O’ Reilly said the claims had no merit. A follow-up opinion piece in the Washington Post called O’Reilly ‘an awful, awful man’. Advertisers and sponsors like Mercedes and BMW began pulling out of the show.  O’Reilly’s future is now in Murdoch’s hands and Sherman  thinks his instincts will be to protect him as long as possible but quotes an insider as saying ‘O’Reilly will be gone if Murdoch thinks it will help the Sky merger get approved’.
To pile up the pressure  a former political strategist who became a Fox News contributor,Julie Roginsky, filed a suit in the New York Supreme Court alleging that she was repeatedly sexually harassed by Ailes in 2015 and was demoted after rebuffing his advances. Roginsky’s allegations go wider into the current Fox News’ management team, claiming that among other things they denied her job opportunities after she spoke up.
Sherman tweeted: ‘The Murdochs say they want to create a safe environment for women, but this suit shows how Fox News executives continued to silence one’. He said Roginsky’s suit describes in detail how Fox staffers pressured employees to publicly defend Ailes against Gretchen Carlson’s suit and that that even after Ailes was forced out, Fox News’ general counsel Dianne Brandi didn’t investigate her claims. Again echoes of phone-hacking.
Its not as if life has been any easier on-air. Fox’s ‘judicial analyst’, Andrew Napolitano, (according to Trump ‘a very talented legal mind’)  said Britain’s GCHQ had helped President Obama spy on Trump, a claim that was repeated by White House spokesman Sean Spicer, rubbished by GCHQ and even disowned by Fox’s own news department. Napolitano was said to have been suspended, Sky News reporting  that ‘A legal expert who claimed GCHQ helped Barack Obama to spy on Donald Trump during the presidential campaign has been removed from air by Fox News’.
Commentators speculated that he had been taken off-air because of the danger that his remarks, which had so enraged the British Government, might affect the chances of the Fox-Sky deal going through.
But Napolitano was soon back on the air.
‘FOX ANCHOR : you put out a statement, I think it was 10 days ago ―
NAPOLITANO: Right.
FOX ANCHOR : Saying you were confident in the story that you reported here in the past month.
NAPOLITANO: Yes.
FOX ANCHOR : You still stand by that or ―
NAPOLITANO: Yes, I do, and the sources stand by it. And the American public needs to know more about this rather than less’.
Anybody expecting a Rupert Murdoch-style ‘the most humble day of my life’ mea culpa would have been very disappointed. The Twenty-First Century Fox lobbyists in their London offices in Soho Square might have been among them.

BBC journalism, Ofcom and a bit of regulatory gobbledygook’

From Monday 3rd April 2017 the BBC has had an external regulator for the first time. Well almost. Actually Ofcom had regulatory oversight of much of the BBC’s content since its foundation in 2003. Before that the Broadcasting Standards Council oversaw editorial standards at the BBC and other broadcasters . But now with the death of the BBC Trust,there is only one regulator and that’s Ofcom and its responsibilities for the BBC go much wider than any previous outside body. But thanks to a bit of regulatory gobbledygook there’s a loophole.

As a member of the DCMS’s advisory committee on BBC Charter Review, written off early on by former BBC Chairman Lord Patten as ‘a team of assistant grave diggers’, I am pleased to report that the patient has survived surprisingly well. Overall it is a good result for the Corporation. However, the elaborate consultation processes have been under-reported and some important issues missed.
I’m not breaching any confidentiality agreements because they weren’t any for committee members, a sign that we were in truth only the ‘sounding board’ DCMS always said we were, encouraging them about some ideas for change, cautioning them about others.
On Wednesday 29th March somebody who doesn’t work for the BBC, the CEO of Ofcom Sharon White, read out a list of things the BBC must do in future or risk a fine. After Ms White’s speech at the Nations and Regions Media Conference in Salford senior BBC executives popped up in the audience to say the draft requirements she had set out were ‘stretching’ but there was no hint of criticism. The speech marked the publication of Ofcom’s draft ‘Operating Licence’ which eventually will become its bible for how it will regulate the BBC’s performance under the new Royal Charter. A formal BBC statement said the draft licence was ‘a balanced but properly stretching and challenging document.We will consider the details carefully’.Nobody has yet said the quotas can’t be achieved.  So we can assume the BBC will spend more of its programming budget outside London, meet minimum network quotas for the individual nations of the UK, achieve increased quotas for news output and children’s television plus enforce a new diversity code (noticeably without Ofcom targets on BAME employment ). The next step is for the BBC -under its newly appointed Board- to publish an Annual Plan .

Under-reported point number one is that Ofcom would have preferred not to have had this job. Those who thought the communications regulator was hungry for more duties were wrong. So too were those who thought Ofcom Chairman,Dame Patricia Hodgson, would want to complete unfinished business from her time at the BBC.
Instead Ofcom, wary of the history of problems in BBC regulation and governance, has consistently pushed back against taking on more of the BBC than it wanted to chew. It was clear something was up the moment the newly appointed Ofcom CEO told the Commons Media Select Committee in July 2015 she wanted to ‘put a line in the sand’ between the things Ofcom already did, such as content regulation, and the responsibilities they did not have ‘the competence to discharge’. Very different from her predecessor Ed Richards’s normal line: ‘we do what parliament asks us to do’.
White said she did not see a role for Ofcom doing the “core job” of the BBC Trust, in terms of auditing the BBC, setting the strategy and measuring how it was performing against its targets and budgets.
Once Sir David Clementi’s independent report to DCMS came out for regulation by Ofcom, rejecting the creation of a regulator just for the BBC, it was clear the Government would accept this simpler, lower-cost option. And then Clementi got the job of BBC Chairman. But Ofcom had continued to push back on the detail of what it did and didn’t want to do. Which explains much of why the draft operating licence is the way it is. Ofcom has escaped on auditing and budgets, but has had to accept that it will be monitoring how the BBC is performing against its targets. Indeed Ofcom will set those quotas and targets. But to avoid having to offer any subjective views on performance the monitoring will be full of numbers not judgements; in particular the numbers of hours broadcast of specific genres. Don’t expect any judgements like; ‘It has been a good/bad year for the BBC’, more a summary of boxes ticked and occasionally unticked.
Under-reported point number two is the one particular push back on which Ofcom has had a clear-cut success; its resistance to regulating BBC News Online ,the most powerful player in British digital journalism.
Ofcom will have the final say on whether, for example, the BBC is impartial in its TV and radio coverage of the forthcoming Brexit negotiations but not on whether the BBC’s coverage online has been. That will be a matter for the BBC Board .
To avoid Ofcom coming to one conclusion and the BBC Board to another about the same piece of journalism depending on where it appeared, an elaborate piece of regulatory gobbledygook has been drafted ; ‘Ofcom will be required to “consider and give an opinion, including such recommendations as they consider appropriate, on whether the BBC has observed the relevant editorial guidelines on the content of online material in its UK Public Services” and must enter into an arrangement with the BBC making provision for this’. In other words Ofcom won’t ‘rule’ if BBC News broke the rules online, it will only ‘give an opinion’, and presumably the BBC Board will be expected to agree with that opinion.What happens if it doesn’t?
This is all about Ofcom not wanting to set a precedent for regulating online news anywhere else, such as on other broadcaster’s websites or newspaper websites. The BBC’s stated aim for the next charter period is to become a Public Service Broadcaster for the internet age, yet the increasing importance of digital and social media will sit outside the regulator’s ambit other than the occasional ‘opinion’.The BBC’s external services,increasingly digital, are also outside that ambit.
So for the foreseeable future when we say Ofcom is now the BBC’s first external regulator we should really add ‘for most but not all content’.

Brexit,broadcasting,impartiality and the two year search for ‘professional judgements, rooted in evidence’.

The week commencing 27th March 2017 sees a brace of starting pistols being fired; the UK gives notice to the European Union under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty and Ofcom is scheduled to finalise how it will regulate the BBC’s impartiality and accuracy when responsibility passes to it from the BBC Trust  – the first time an external body has had oversight of what the BBC Director-General,Tony Hall, calls the ‘cornerstone of BBC News’.
Simultaneously Conservative MPs and peers are ramping up their criticism of how the BBC has covered Brexit in the months since the referendum vote. The allegation is that the BBC has been pessimistic and skewed and ‘if politicians and the public don’t view it as an impartial broker, then the future of the BBC will be in doubt’ according to letter signed by more than 60 Tories in parliament. They offered no specific evidence and Tony Hall offered no detailed rebuttal other than to say the BBC will report the news diligently and impartially and ‘we will guard our independence’.
In 2004 the BBC Governors , who judged BBC impartiality in those days, asked an independent panel of outside experts to consider the BBC News coverage of the European Union. In 2005 they got back the most critical of the series of reports they commissioned into impartiality. As in all such reports the outsiders found ‘no deliberate bias’ but this time they did discover ‘a serious problem’ at the BBC;

‘We have found that there is a widespread perception that it suffers from certain forms of cultural and unintentional bias…the result of a combination of factors including an institutional mindset ..sometimes we have found a reluctance to question pro-EU assumptions’.

Listening to a programme on BBC Five Live at about that time I was struck that an interviewer seemed to find it very odd that anybody should argue for leaving the EU. The tone was similar to the one David Cameron struck in 2006 when as Tory Party leader he said ‘UKIP is sort of a bunch of..fruitcakes and loonies and closed racists, mostly’.

The BBC Governors chose not to reply to the report’s suggestion of an ‘institutional mindset’ but announced a series of action points by the management to improve the quality of the coverage. Over the next decade I think it is fair to say the BBC improved both its coverage and its self-awareness of any unintentional bias.

Which gets us to the coverage of the 2016 referendum. This was a deeply stressful experience for the BBC . During the campaign I remember being invited to comment on  the coverage but first being asked before the programme which way I intended to vote -something I have never been asked before by a broadcaster. I assume this was for some kind of scoreboard that was being kept of pro and anti Brexit voices on the air. I refused to answer and the BBC backed down.

The view of the BBC coverage by many media observers, perhaps best articulated by Professor Ivor Gaber of Sussex University, was;

‘The problem was that virtually every BBC radio and television news bulletins that I heard or watched contained a format of ‘balanced’ news that was stupefyingly predictable. A claim by the Remain or Leave campaign was automatically contradicted by a rebuttal from the other side. First, it made for tedious listening and viewing, second, it probably left much of the audience confused and third left them vulnerable to simplistic slogans e.g. £350 million going to the EU instead of the NHS’.

From there being a perception that the BBC had an unintentional bias in favour of the EU, the BBC was now accused of inadvertently favouring the Brexiteers. The comparison was made with an ITV interview on the battle-bus which bore the £350m slogan in which  Tom Bradby repeatedly challenged and finger-pointed at Boris Johnson, arguing ‘you are driving round the country with a dirty great lie on your bus’.

So what happens for the next two years?
The problem the BBC has, and indeed all the broadcasters signed up to ‘due impartiality’ have, is that as the negotiations with the EU develop their reporters will need to question all sides about the economic implications for the citizens of the UK. The honest answer should often be ‘We don’t really know yet’ but which politician of any persuasion is going to say that. The BBC will turn to its own correspondents who are allowed under  BBC editorial guidelines- ‘provide professional judgements, rooted in evidence, but may not express personal views in BBC output, including online’.

Critics on either side will watch out for when they think these ‘professional judgements’ morph into ‘personal views’. David Keighley of news-watch.co.uk noticed Laura Kuenssberg’s BBC 2 documentary ‘Britain’s Biggest Deal’ claiming;

‘as the programme unfolded, there was what amounted to a a torrent of negative observations and questions: were we, she pondered, ‘hurtling along a collision course?’; there was ‘a lot more to worry about than herring or cod’; ‘divorce was messy, breaking up is hard to do’; ‘could the whole deal be derailed before it’s even begun?’

On Sky News on 28th March I debated with Peter Bone, veteran Tory Brexiteer MP, who claimed the BBC was ‘institutionally biased’ against Brexit. I referred back to the 2005 report and the lessons learned in the 2016 referendum and argued that the BBC and other broadcasters were now doing their best in difficult circumstances- asking the right questions to which we all knew there were no simple answers.

Over the next two years we can expect plenty of either ‘It will be fine’ or ‘It will be a disaster’ soundbites from politicians. In truth none will sound much like what the BBC would call  ‘professional judgements, rooted in evidence’. That’s just the way it’s going to be.

My tribute to the late Steve Hewlett as his sons collect his Royal Television Society award.

At the RTS Television Journalism Awards on 1st March 2017 the Judges Award was collected by the sons of the late Steve Hewlett. As Chairman of the Awards I gave this tribute to Steve and explained the background.

On the 26th January a panel of  broadcasters,  agencies and jury chairs met to decide on the Judges Award. The rules say it can recognise an outstanding contribution on or off screen, in the past year or over the course of their career.

The panel chose a winner who achieved so much on screen and off screen, over the course of his career and very particularly in the past year. I phoned the winner and that’s how I got to tell Steve Hewlett that he had won the Judges Award at the 2017 RTS Television Journalism Awards. Steve told me he was honoured and touched to have won the award. He looked forward to receiving it on 1st March.

I don’t think there has ever been anybody in broadcasting quite like Steve Hewlett. And probably never will be again. Over four decades he variously, and often simultaneously, produced programmes, edited them, commissioned them, wrote and broadcast about them, and presented them and exec produced them as an independent.

He worked for the BBC, Channel Four, ITV and his own indy Genie Pictures. He started on TV and learned to love radio. He was the star turn for many years at RTS Cambridge, the Edinburgh and Sheffield festivals and many other media events.

He truly was a man for all seasons, one of them being the rugby season. I remember turning up with my son at a youth rugby tournament in Hertfordshire to find Steve all togged up ready to referee one of the matches.

He was fiercely competitive in everything he did but also generous with praise for his competitors. He always threw himself into his journalism. He spent 8 weeks filming inside the Maze Prison with Peter Taylor, and made a remarkable film there. He enjoyed his triumphs – the 23 million audience for the Panorama Diana interview will take some beating as a record for factual television – and he carried on regardless after disappointments.

One of the hallmarks of Steve’s journalism was his natural curiosity. Which contact or interviewee -I was proud to be both- could resist an opening line like ‘help me with this if you can’. Another was his attention to detail, as a pundit he read the documents others didn’t, which is how he knew so much and questioned so much, especially his own employers at the BBC. And there was his humanity and there was his humour.

All these same qualities, this same journalism, came to the fore last year on the Radio 4 PM Programme. The presenter Eddie Mair told listeners that this time Steve was on the air not to talk about the media but about his health. Eddie asked Steve ‘What’s happening?’ to which Steve replied ‘Well I’ve got cancer. I’ve got cancer of the oesophagus’.

This matter of fact conversation set the style for many that were to follow on Radio Four and be replicated in different forms in print and on TV. There had been cancer diaries before but this was much more, it was public interest journalism of the kind Steve practised on Panorama. He knew all the medical details as if he was talking on the Media Show about the BBC Charter.The public response was enormous. Many of the people who wrote to Steve said he had inspired them to find out more about their own condition, their own treatment.

Steve and I talked about the archive clips from his career that he hoped we would show tonight. A Panorama team tracked them down and added some of Steve’s recent interviews about cancer. Together these clips form a compilation that tells the story of Steve Hewlett’s journalism from the early 1980’s right up to last month. he first is a clip Steve often mentioned, when he dressed up in a bear’s costume for a title sequence for a new Channel Four current affairs programme.

On the 6th February Steve told Eddie Mair on BBC Radio Four that he’d been given only ‘weeks, possibly months’ to live. He and his partner Rachel Crellin decided to get married in a ceremony organised within the hour at the Royal Marsden Hospital. A few days later Rachel, Steve and I met there to talk about tonight. He told me again how proud he was about the award. I told him how much love there would be for him within the room, he looked rather surprised.

The plan was for him to be sitting at a table with Rachel, and his three sons Fred, Billy and Bertie. Steve knew he wouldn’t be well enough to come up to the podium but wanted his sons to speak for him.

There is one other thing Rachel, Steve and I discussed at the Marsden. He’d heard that some kind of scholarship for young people was being planned. He was very keen on the idea and hoped it could come about. Tonight it does.

The Royal Television Society and the Media Society can announce ‘The Steve Hewlett Scholarship’ which will be presented each year to a young journalist or journalism student under the age of 25 from a lower income household. Steve always went the extra mile to help people starting off in their careers. He was also always committed to greater social justice.

The scholarship will be funded by the RTS on a long term basis from an existing bursary and the Media Society will lead a major fund-raising appeal to increase the value of the scholarship. Some organisations and individuals have already committed to supporting the appeal and we thank them for that. One of Steve’s colleagues at ITV, Clive Jones, will chair it.

The first winner will be chosen later this year. Entries are already invited. Steve’s wife Rachel has kindly agreed to help make the selection and we hope his sons will be involved too.

Our very final thought for the night is to express our gratitude to our guests on table 3.Thank you Rachel Freddie, Billy and Bertie and good night everybody.