Saturday, 3 November 2018

Kamal's New Thing: 'Explaining Journalism'

The Saturday transcript is fast becoming a weekend tradition here at Is the BBC biased?, so please draw up a chair, put on your fez and dressing gown, set aside your copy of 'In Defence of Political Correctness' by Yasmin Alibhai Brown, pour yourself a large glass of port, take out your finest cigar, and we'll begin....
Samira Ahmed: This week's Budget was the last for Kamal Ahmed as the BBC's Economics Editor. On Thursday he started a new job as Editorial Director for BBC News and he is with me now. Welcome to Newswatch in your dual capacity! Let's start with the criticism. Are you offering opinion rather than facts when you're covering economics and being too negative?
Kamal Ahmed: No, we don't offer opinion. I don't. My opinion doesn't matter. We look at what the data say [ed - sic, or not as the case may be]. We try and explain to our audiences what the figures are showing, what the Government is attempting to do. I said in the News at Ten...I did the News at Ten for Budget Night...I said that the public finances were in a lot better shape than expected, that borrowing was a lot lower. So we were showing what the good parts of the Government's economic story was. But also I think it is important for us to set out the risks, set out some of the criticisms. As economics editor, my opinion doesn't matter, but I do make judgments on what the data is telling us about how the economy is performing.
Samira Ahmed: What's interesting is that, unlike most science, where there's usually a consensus [ed- not so sure about that Samira!], economists...I know it's social science...often disagree or, as in the case of the 2008 crash, didn't really seem to know what was going on, is it fair to say viewers are right to feel wary of the experts the BBC wheels on?
Kamal Ahmed: I think it's important to understand what economics is and what a forecast is. It's a spread of possibilities and there is a central possibility, but there are outlying possibilities. And, as you say, it's not like a pure science, not like gravity, if you drop a ball it goes down. It doesn't mean the viewer should think I shouldn't listen to experts. These are people who look at how economies work, how they respond to interest rate rises or trade disputes... 
Samira Ahmed: There are ideologies, aren't there, too in how they approach economics? 
Kamal Ahmed: There could be political effects on how some people approach economics but that's not how we approach, how we look at the facts and the figures. We look at the models put together by the Bank of England, by the London School of Economics, by the International Monetary Fund, by the OECD, and we try and explain what those models are saying to our viewers and our audiences. And tell them that this is a possible path. It's not a definite. And I think that has been the issue around forecasts. Politicians do try and use some forecasts to say this will definitely happen. That is not what forecasts are for. 
Samira Ahmed: Often you're dealing with macroeconomics - you know, the big numbers, GDP, and viewers often feel the coverage doesn't focus enough on the human scale and the human impact?
Kamal Ahmed: When we did the tenth anniversary of the financial crisis, we deliberately started it off with a young single father from Manchester and what had happened to his income over the last ten years. And so we do very deliberately try and tell a lot of those big macro stories, like how our incomes have been affected by the financial crisis through individual stories. I think you're absolutely right, we need to get out there, we need to talk to real people about their experiences, and we have pushed ourselves to do that.
Samira Ahmed: More generally, you spoke publicly about areas of BBC news coverage that you think might benefit from a fresh approach and. For example, you said of confrontational debate, "studio ding-dongs don't explain the news". How big a concern is that?
Kamal Ahmed: It wasn't a direct criticism of the BBC at all. I was just saying that some news coverage in general can be driven by the controversy, by A versus B, by this idea there are two sides and they're in battle. Sometimes it will be the role of journalist and the BBC as an organisation to explain that there are nuances to these arguments, that not everything is a complete controversy. And also part of my new job is going to be about promoting the idea of 'explaining journalism'. So the BBC reports the news but also explains the news. It gives context, it gives background and it gives depth. And that's an important part of news reporting. Because we get a lot of evidence from our audience research that the news makes people feel anxious, and that's all it make them feel. There's no solutions Everything is a huge polarised row. We want to change some of that tone.
Samira Ahmed: Well, you have just started a new managerial job, as Editorial Director of News. Given that there's a Controller of Editorial Policy, David Jordan, another a number of other senior editorial managers in news, Newswatch viewers might wonder what you'll be doing. 
Kamal Ahmed: Well, they might! So my new job is going to be about two or three things. First, the big challenge for the BBC - the BBC is an organisation built around the big, great news programmes - News at Ten, News at Six, the Today programme, Radio 5 News, Newsbeat, you know, all those things - but they are 'appointment to view' moments. You have to tune in at ten o'clock. How does the BBC change in three to five years when our audiences want the news on their phone, want it on their tablet, want it when they want it on the go? And that's a big change for this organisation. So I'm going to be looking at the challenges of that. There's the day-to-day role of helping us choose the type of stories that engage our audiences, maybe avoid some of the complaints you get on this programme. That's going to be part of my job. Then, interestingly, there's also an internal bit of it as well, which is about the culture of the BBC. Are we the best place to work? Are we promoting the best talent through the organisation -  the next generation who will run the BBC when I'm long gone?
Samira Ahmed: Briefly, it does feel like the BBC News editorial decision-making is constantly under attack at the moment, as never before, for example how the BBC reports Brexit. How do you think the BBC should deal with that?
Kamal Ahmed: You say we are more than ever before. Well, I think a function of that is that there are more platforms on which to attack the BBC rather than more people are cross with the BBC. And the fact is we have a huge amount of output, we have thousands of journalists, we have loads and loads of great products and, of course, people don't like everything we do - and that's absolutely reasonable. We'll listen. We'll react when it's of substance. But we won't be overwhelmed by it. The BBC does an amazing job every day producing news and current affairs, and my new job is just to help us think about the future, new audiences, younger audiences in particular. But also to help us make the right decisions day-by-day. 
Samira Ahmed: Kamal Ahmed, thank you.


What with Kamal telling Samira that part of his new job will be to "maybe avoid some of the complaints you get on this programme", and saying "We'll listen. We'll react when it's of substance", I'm guessing he's going to be making more appearances on Newswatch. I'm not sure the bit when Samira puts a criticism he made of "studio ding-dongs don't explain the news" and he scrambled into 'Protect the BBC' mode instantly bodes particularly well though. But hope springs eternal!


P.S. As Bill at trading as wdr says (h/t Peter):
The BBC's Kamal Ahmed has given his first interview to Newswatch under his [very-soon-to-be] new title, Editorial Director. 
He may learn that listing things creates sins of omission. "The BBC is an organisation built around the big, great news programmes, News at Ten, News at Six, the Today programme, Radio 5Live news, Newsbeat, all those things".  This has potential to create anxieties, real or imagined amongst editors and staff of programmes and services not mentioned. Make your own list. 
As I transcribed this interview the word 'Newsnight' did immediately cross my mind. 


  1. “Explaining the news, telling viewers about a possible path, spelling out criticisms and following the data”.
    In the end what is offered up is your opinion Kamal.

    “That’s not what forecasts are for”
    Not so long ago Kamal created a big headline and story which he had to correct next day. He used a BOE stress test forecast mentioned by Mark Carney to say house prices would collapse post Brexit.

    I wouldn’t trust him as far as I could chuck him.

    Another ambitious, paid up member of the liberal left, biased BBC staffer saying one thing and doing another. And remember he is known for ‘blame everything on Brexit’ and ‘despite Brexit’.

  2. Kamal didn't study economics when he went to university.

    From Wikipedia: "From 1980 to 1986, Ahmed was educated at Drayton Manor High School, a state comprehensive school in Hanwell in the London Borough of Ealing in West London, followed by the University of Leeds, from which he graduated in 1990 with a degree in political studies. He then trained in journalism at the City University Department of Journalism. " After working for the Equalities Commission he somehow got appointed as Business Editor at the Sunday Telegraph and attended some course (presumably part time) at the London Business School to prepare him for that. That appears to the sum total of his education in business or economics.

    The BBC is a joke - at our expense.

    But for some reason we are supposed to trust his economics judgements!

    He was on some media course. It's

    1. Ignore the media course reference - it was Political Studies he read at Uni.