“The dissemination of misinformation on an industrial scale is a huge issue”

Former BBC News chief discusses the growing need for analysis in an accelerating news context

James Harding, former head of BBC News.
James Harding, former head of BBC News.Samuel Sánchez

The world changed a lot in the five years that James Harding was in his role as head of BBC News. Between 2013 and 2018, the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union, Donald Trump won the US presidential elections, and Europe was terrorized by a series of indiscriminate Jihadist attacks.

Harding is an expert at breaking the mold – in particular when it comes to age. After a precocious start as a correspondent in China and the US, he took charge of The Times at just 38. He was also the youngest journalist to be appointed at the BBC to head one of the most respected newsrooms in the world, just as social and digital media were dramatically changing traditional news formats. In his resignation letter, which he sent on January 1, he explained that he was leaving to pursue a kind of “journalism that the BBC, for all its brilliance, can’t, and probably shouldn’t, do.”

Question. You are leaving the BBC to focus on a genre of news you have defined as “slow news.” What does this entail?

Answer. If you think about the way we behave as journalists, we are really interested in just what happened, in breaking news. I remember coming into the newsroom one day. The night before there had been a terrible event in Nice. We started discussing what happened. Was this guy a lone operator? What were the failures of French intelligence? And I switched on the news that night at 10pm to see whether things had been clarified. None of them were, because there had been a coup in Turkey. I remember that weekend thinking: “Hang on. I begin to understand how people feel just bombarded by the news, by how much news is coming at them”. And actually, what I think people want more and more is context and understanding.

Q. You mentioned the Brexit referendum. I had the chance to testify in the UK Parliament, in the House of Commons, regarding fake news in Catalonia and also the Brexit referendum. Do you think fake news affected the outcome of the Brexit vote?

A. Did it happen in Catalonia? Do you feel there was fake news, in a measurable way, in a significant way?

There has been a huge increase in the dissemination of information that is wrong on an industrial scale

Q. Absolutely.

A. From whom?

Q. We identified fake news and misinformation coming mainly from RT and Sputnik. They are funded directly by the Kremlin. They push distorted information from dubious news sources. There was a headline saying something like: “Why isn’t NATO bombing Madrid for 78 days?” And the source was a UK diplomat. The UK diplomat was not even a former ambassador. There have been numbers that were grossly exaggerated figures, like 1,000 people injured in the Catalan referendum.

A. That’s really interesting. In the Brexit referendum we don’t fully know – there is a Parliamentary review underway – whether or not there was any meaningful interference, not just people saying things that were wrong. I think that we will get greater clarity on it this year. I think that fake news as a category is quite a specific thing. I think misinformation, the term you used, is the much broader and significant problem.

Q. When we reported on this, we singled out outlets that usually engage in this type of behavior. And that type of outlet looks for sources that reinforce pre-established claims such as that Crimea can be Russian, the EU is in decay, or the US is a super-power that is coming to its end. These sources will give it a headline, this headline will be published, this information will penetrate the news environment in different countries, usually at a European level or North American level, and this gets a lot of steam with a lot of interactions in Facebook and Twitter. And you see 70% or 80% of dubious traffic coming from there, usually from what we call bot farms. What do you think about that?

What people want more and more of is context and understanding

A. Firstly, I think we are all underestimating what you said about the “bot farms.” This huge increase in bots, the dissemination of information that is wrong on an industrial scale, I think it’s a huge issue.

Q. Organizations such as RT have responded that “they are exactly like BBC News.” Do you think that is the case?

A. They are not like the BBC. They are not because they don’t have the guarantees of independence and they don’t have the behavior that’s independent. A good way of testing it is how often and how willing are you able, on legitimate grounds, to criticize your own government. That’s a good way of testing the independence of any news organization.

Q. PricewaterhouseCoopers recently published a report on the gender gap at the BBC. They found that gender discrimination is not a problem, but in the newsroom there continue to be complaints about salary gaps and appointments.

A. The BBC has set out to fix the gender pay gap, not to narrow it but eliminate it. It is the first organization to do that. I think it’s an issue that’s not just an issue of gender pay gap. It’s an issue of a glass ceiling. Watch the mix at the very top management of the organization. There is an issue that is not just around gender, but around diversity that affects race, disability and class.

Q. All news organizations today have a problem with how women are represented at the top. At the base I think it’s fairly divided. What can be done in order to empower women to take more responsibility in news organizations?

A. You have to try to create a balance between men and women and fairness, so you a have mixed people in terms of color and class and religion. There is no simple change.

There is an issue that is not just around gender, but around diversity that affects race, disability and class

Q. Are you satisfied with the opportunities that were given to women during your tenure at the BBC?

A. The changes were really big, in the news roughly a quarter of management were women when I arrived. By the time I left it was well over a third, nearly 40%. There were changes. Is that enough? No. Is that the right direction? Yes, it is. If you look at what is happening overall, we really made an effort.

Q. I would like to wrap up by asking you how the media has changed at the international level. You have just left the BBC News service. During your tenure BBC News and EL PAÍS were competing in the same market. A public TV in the UK with a lot of prestige, and the leading newspaper in Spain and Latin America, both publishing news and video online in Spanish. Are we competitors?

A. There is a curious thing going on: we still talk about newspapers and broadcasters and social media platforms. And the regulation for us is, of course, very different. It feels as culturally and politically the world has not really caught up yet. But the differences between us are much deeper than people appreciate. The things that you can do at EL PAÍS are totally different to what you can do at the BBC. You can campaign, you can criticize, you can lean into the news. The BBC is required to report the news. It’s a different relationship. But, yes, it has changed enormously.

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