Saturday 16 December 2017

'Newswatch' Interview with James Harding (Transcript)

For transcript lovers everywhere...

Samira Ahmed: James Harding, thanks for coming on Newswatch. Let's start with Brexit. You were Director of News during the EU referendum - a very divisive time for the nation. Looking back now what do you say to the many viewers who thought the BBC was actually essentially acting as part of the Establishment and clearly favouring Remain? 

James HardingI think that the referendum was, of course, an incredibly polarising time, as you say, Samira. But actually what's interesting is, of course, we've had complaints from both sides. And what we try to do, and I think when you look back and you look at the coverage, what we actually did do, was set about trying to explain what the choice was, trying to report out what the choice was. If you look back over the last few years, there have been an extraordinary number of democratic moments - two referendums, two general elections, a host of others around the world. I think one of the real lessons of the last few years is you can't predict what's going to happen. You can't rely on either political predictions or polls, and that means for us we have to do what we're here for, we've got to make sure that people get a sense of what the choice is. And that's what we really tried to do in that referendum, and that fact that was country was then and in some places remains polarised by that outcome is obviously reflected in the way that people respond to the news that they're getting.

Samira AhmedYou mention the need for the BBC to provide informed news about that issue, and there was a big accusation from many viewers that the BBC was in fact, during the referendum, too timid in calling out things, notably statistical claims being made by one side or another that just weren't true. 

James Harding: Well, that's brilliant, because your first two questions say, 'On the one hand,  the BBC was too Establishment; on the other hand it didn't do enough to make the case for Remain', so...

Samira Ahmed: (interrupting) No, it was just not calling out statistical claims.

James Harding: No, no. Listen! Firstly, many people come on Newswatch and we make an account of ourselves. There's no question at all, the BBC and, as a news organisation, a group of journalists, what we set out to do is to try and understand the world that's presented to us and make choices, and in that there is no question at all that the BBC has to make judgments, and we do. I suppose that on the issue of statistics, the specific question you're asking about numbers, actually, we made a very clear choice to try and challenge those numbers, question those numbers. And more than that, we didn't do it in a sort of ad hoc way, we took something called Reality Check, right, which was our system for fact checking, we really increased the resources, the number of people working on it and we've made that a permanent part of the way in which we cover politics and policy. So, rather than actually stepping back from analysing statistics and numbers, we've actually stepped into it. 

Samira Ahmed: Related to that, there was an issue about false equivalence. So in the case of Brexit people felt that there was an overwhelming percentage of economists who believed that Remain would be a better result but that the BBC was finding an economist to go on the other side. And to some extent the same with climate. 

James Harding: Well actually, you're exactly right. So the way that we really began to understand this issue of false balance - that's false equivalence, false balance - is this idea that every argument must have an 'on the one hand, on the other hand' and the truth is it doesn't. Not every argument has an 'on the one hand, on the other hand'. And when we were looking at climate change, particularly around the science of climate change, that wasn't the case. And one of the reasons why I think we thought very carefully in the context of the EU referendum was precisely because we learned our lesson as regards false balance about climate change and the science of climate change, so... 

Samira Ahmed: (interrupting) So there is a new policy now on climate change, how you report it?

James Harding: No, that's actually been the case for many years. Actually it pre-dates me. One of the lessons that we learned the better part of a decade ago was actually to think more seriously about how we measure, not the arguments over the response to climate change - people can have political views on that - but the arguments over the science and the fact that the overwhelming majority of scientists, the overwhelming majority, were very clear about the scientific causes and consequences of climate change. 

Samira Ahmed: I just think that some viewers and listeners will be confused because they are wondering why people like Nigel Lawson have been on the Today programme in the past couple of months. 

James Harding: So, as you'll remember, there are two issues here, Samira, really well worth understanding, because there are people who accept the science of climate change but argue that the responses should be different and there are some people who don't accept the science. Our job is to report the science and then to enable the discussion about policy, about the responses, but not to confuse the two. And where we've got into trouble, and where we've had to stand up and say 'Sorry, we got that wrong' was where we've confused the two.

Samira AhmedWith hindsight, should the BBC have done representation of different political views differently? We've had many complaints from some viewers over the years about, for example, too much Nigel Farage. 

James HardingSo, I think it's a really good and important issue, this, and one that we spend an enormous amount of time thinking about. So, if you got into the team, for example, on Question Time, which would be a good place to start, we are really careful in trying to think about where we hold the programme, so we get the best possible spread of audiences, who's on the panel, not just in the context of who's on the panel on a particular Thursday night, but who's on the panel over the course of a year, over the course of an entire political or electoral cycle. So, we do really think about it a great deal. And actually if you look over time, if you look over all of the BBC, what we call 'output', all of the BBC programmes, it's something that we think really, really carefully about. Actually, if it's all right with you, I think there's something different that is really worth thinking about. It's not about the representation of political parties, it's about the representations of views and personal points of view that are not necessarily captured by political parties but are captured by groups of people or individuals who feel as though their voice should be heard on the BBC. One of the things we've really tried to do is change that too. And I think if you look where news is going, if you look at what's happening, not just in our big bulletins and programmes but what we've been doing in mobile and online, you can see that there are those voices, those stories being told in a way that was never the case before.

Samira AhmedTrust in BBC News has been eroded under your watch, hasn't it? 

James HardingWell, actually, it moves. So the truth is with trust, it moves. I think that obviously I arrived here on the back of Savile and McAlpine, and those were big issues facing the BBC and confidence in BBC News. Actually, that trust and confidence was significantly restored. But you're right, there's also a very profound argument going on around trust in the media generally in the light of what's happening politically. I don't just mean party politically, I don't just mean Brexit and Trump, I mean the extent to which people feel as though they're seen by, if you like, the system, by politicians, by the media - and, yes, that's something we've really got to think about. I think that when I came here the issue facing the BBC was about trust and confidence in our journalism in the light of what had happened. Could we go out and do investigative reporting? Could we go out and do controversial stories, stories which required deeper analysis? And I hope that we've shown, both in the UK and around the world, we do that. I think the point that you raise raises a different issue, which is 'How are we going to do more, particularly for younger audiences, particularly for people between the ages of 16 and 34?'. That's a big challenge that we've worked on and it needs a lot more work in the years to come.

Samira AhmedIn your resignation letter, you said you were going to set up a media company with a clear point of view. Does that mean you think the BBC's aim of impartial news isn't working in the age of fake news? 

James HardingNo, no, it doesn't. It means exactly the opposite. It means that the BBC's offer is working and should be what it is, which is impartial, but not necessarily taking a position. The public funds, we are funded by the licence fee payer, and everyone who pays the licence fee, I think, has a decent expectation that the BBC should operate in such a way that it reports what's happening but doesn't take a position, doesn't take a stand in the way in which newspapers or websites or other individuals might do. No, actually, I really believe in it. And if you look at the BBC's trust, the BBC trust levels are so much higher than any other news organisation. That's the simple fact. And we still have to keep on working on trust, but it is the thing that is the most impressive about the BBC and the public's relationship with the BBC. 

Samira Ahmed: You were tasked with a plan to cut £80 million from the news budget for the BBC. How much of that plan have you done? 

James Harding: When I arrived here we were on the back end of a five years' savings programme and we continued that. Actually the first year was a £50 million set of savings. And the BBC has been generally cutting its funding of news and current affairs in order to be more efficient and live within our means. You know, what happened in recent years was that we had essentially a frozen licence fee and so, as you can imagine, there was an increased cost of things. We had to make savings. We're doing that again now, and we're in a process where we are gradually identifying places where we can make savings...

Samira Ahmed: (interrupting) So basically it's still being worked out? I mean, it hasn't happened, has it?

James Harding: Well no, it hasn't happened but it will be worked out, yeah.

Samira Ahmed: Gender. The shocking scale of the gender pay gap was revealed this year with many male journalists on far higher salaries than women doing equal work of equal value. Why did you let that continue? 

James Harding: I think that this is an absolutely critical relationship for us in our relationships with our audiences, but also with the teams of people working at the BBC. So as you many remember, Samira, actually we didn't let it continue. We started very significantly and seriously seeking to change the BBC. So five years ago, when I joined the BBC, and I know I'm following up the work of many other people, five years ago what we set about doing was looking at the teams of people who were on air and on camera and the mix of people that we had on air didn't reflect and didn't come close to reflecting I felt the audiences that we've got. And, as you've seen, the mix of people who are now editors on air, our correspondents around the world, and the (?) of our programmes has fundamentally changed, and our mix has changed too. So off-air - i.e. the people who produce and edit programmes - has changed significantly too. When I joined...

Samira Ahmed: (interrupting) What about pay?

James Harding: Can I...let me finish! I'll come to pay, because you're completely right to raise it too. When I joined we looked at the situation where there were just about a quarter of the senior editors and managers were women. We've changed that. Now it's nearly 40%. We've still got a way to go, don't get me wrong, we've still got a way to go but you can change an organisation and when you look on the 6 O'Clock or the 10 O'Clock News, when you look at our programmes or you listen to our programmes today, you're seeing a very, very different group of people, and I'm sure that will continue. Now on pay that too we addressed. You may remember in 2016, in the spring, I announced what was called 'a news pay review' and we started making a number of changes. Now those changes were incremental, they take time, people understandably are on contracts, you have to make changes over time, but we have been making changes and in the course of this year what Tony Hall and I and others have set out to do is say, look, we want to be in the forefront of organisations in the country, not just the media but across all businesses. We want to be a place where we have real confidence that we have equal pay, fair pay for people across...

Samira Ahmed: (interrupting) So we are going to get equal pay? That's all people want to know!

James Harding: Hold on, hold on, hold on! Not only are we going to get it, we have equal pay. If you look, we did a full equal pay audit which showed there is equal pay across the BBC. We have a gender pay gap which is much smaller than other industries. We want to get it down to zero, and we're committed to doing that by 2017.

Samira Ahmed: So there is a gender pay gap, which is not exactly the same as 'We have equal pay'?

James Harding: No, you're exactly right...

Samira Ahmed(interrupting) Well, you've said that you want to explain it but I think we'll let viewers make up their own minds about that. I have another question about gender, but a very specific one. The first female political editor was employed under your watch, Laura Kuenssberg. Why do you think she has been getting unprecedented levels of vitriol and hatred? 

James HardingI don't know. I think it's shameful that she is, because she is an unbelievably impressive journalist. She is one of the most extraordinary journalists I've ever worked with. If you look at just the thoughtfulness, the diligence and the quality of the work, I'm just amazed that people are so personal, even if they don't like the politics they see in front of them. The fact they're willing to attack Laura - admittedly in different forms, mostly online - the fact they're willing to do that, I find is really shocking, and is bad for the way in which journalism is conducted and public debate. So, all I can say is that I know a few people do this. I do also have to say that I'm in a happy position that many people come up to me and say what an extraordinary job she's doing. And so I don't think we should lose sight of the fact that there are a huge number of people who recognise what an exceptional journalist and brilliant political editor she is.

Samira Ahmed We get lots of complaints from viewers that the BBC is anti-Jeremy Corbyn and is focused on Labour Party divisions. Do you agree that the BBC has collectively failed on the whole to treat him fairly and seriously? 

James HardingNo, I don't think that, although I do think there is a really interesting lesson in the coverage of Jeremy Corbyn. So what happened was that Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of the Labour Party, and within the Parliamentary Labour Party there was obviously great disquiet, there was great opposition to him within the Parliamentary Labour Party. And we reported that. We reported obviously not just the opposition to him, but the efforts that were made to get rid of him. There were leadership contests that were precisely about that. The question is, did we get that mix right alongside the mix of changes that were happening within the membership of the local Labour Party, and people who were not members? So, I would say the in course of the 2017 general election, we really DID capture that mood. If you go and you look at the way in which we were covering Jeremy Corbyn's rallies, we were the people saying the polls might say X, but look what's happening in terms of the rallies. We also, I like to think, really got to grips with the questions that were the heart of Jeremy Corbyn's proposal to the country in the nature of the manifesto - once again trying to examine the choice, rather than the horse race. But there is a question which is, from the time that Jeremy Corbyn was elected through to 2017, there are obviously changes within some of those constituency Labour Party, parts of the constituency Labour Party, and there's a politics element of that that is also really interesting, but also to the mood of certain parts of the electorate, and particularly young people. And getting to that and making sure we continue to get to that I think is really important. 

Samira Ahmed: You came from The Times and The Financial Times with no broadcasting experience. You hired a number of people into senior roles with no broadcasting experience from newspapers, and newspapers with overt political positions - so Ian Katz at Newsnight, Sarah Sands at the Today programme. Many viewers have complained that it's undermined the BBC's impartiality. Do you see that? 

James Harding: I don't at all. I think we've been incredibly fortunate to have brilliant people come to the BBC. And just so viewers are aware, of course, you know, this is an amazing place to work.  You know, to work at the BBC is as great a privilege as you can possibly have as a journalist. And it's no surprise people want to come and work here. And, yes, I've had some people who have come from papers, we've been lucky to recruit people from Channel 4 News, from ITN, from Sky, we've had people come from across the world of television and radio and print. And actually we're talking, when you mention those numbers, there are few people. Those people you mention are also actually excellent, and I think we're lucky to have them. We want a BBC surely that people who pay for the BBC should want a BBC that has the best people working for it. 

Samira AhmedBriefly, do you have any regrets? 

James HardingOh, yeah, I'm sure I have a fair few. I'm not sure that Newswatch is the most brilliant place to, sort of, unburden myself of all of them. 

Samira AhmedI think it is. 

James Harding: You think it is?

Samira AhmedLicence fee payers... 

James Harding: Well Samira, all right, let's have a go at it. I think that the... The biggest issues I've got are the one that I raise about how are we going to change an organisation when the behaviour of people around news is changing so fast. So, that's a long way of saying, we still have huge audiences for the 6 O'Clock and 10 O'Clock News, for the Today programme, and for 5 Live and Newsbeat. Yet we can also see people changing the way in they consume news. Are we moving fast enough to make those changes? And not just in terms of the devices, also the way we tell stories. How do we do that? That's one thing....

Samira Ahmed(interrupting) That's a challenge, not a regret. 

James Harding: Well, it's a regret in terms of 'Did we move fast enough? Have we moved fast enough?'. I think, look, the point that you make about making changes about the mix of people on air and off it, I'm really proud that we've moved. I'm really do think we've moved, and I think it's exactly right that the BBC's always under pressure to move further and faster. And again, would I have liked to say, 'I wish we'd gone further, we'd gone faster', yes of course, and I think that's a good thing, and it's a good spur on to the BBC to keep on changing in that way. And there are a host of other things but I'm not going to share them.

Samira AhmedYour successor, Fran Unsworth, is an internal candidate, which some might say reflects perhaps a decision to go a different way for the BBC. Do you have any advice for her? 

James HardingWell, I chose Fran when I joined as my deputy, and she has been an extraordinary person to work with. For people who don't know her, Fran has worked at the BBC for pretty much her entire career and knows and understands it. Most recently she was running the BBC World Service. And what you see with Fran is an incredibly thoughtful manager of people, a really intelligent judge of news, and a fantastic ambassador for the BBC. But most of all, what she has is the capacity to enable great people to do exceptional work. And when you are the Director of News and Current Affairs, that's the thing you really want to do. It's not what you do. The leadership of the organisation is enabling other people to do great things and no-one does that better in my experience, than Fran. So I think she will be a brilliant Director of News and Current AffairsI have loved working with her and I tell you a great, great many people in the BBC feel the same way. So I think of the audience - the viewers and the listeners - I hope will look and see in Fran Unsworth someone who is really committed to the best quality journalism that exists in the UK and, as she's demonstrated as the head of the World Service, around the world.

Samira Ahmed Thank you, James Harding. 

James HardingThank you very much. 


  1. It's really annoying the way people say comedy hasn't been any good since the days of Morecambe and Wise. I love this new act - Ahmed and Harding. I'm sure they too will form an enduring double act.

    Such great catch phrases: "Brexit was polarising"..."Complaints from both sides"..."vitriol and hatred"...

    The funniest one is that one about "the way we tell stories" (it's the way he tells it!).

    You have to laugh - really, otherwise you break down and cry...break down and weep uncontrollably thinking...these people are in control of our country's future.

  2. Where to start with this interview?

    First, James Harding tried to sidestep quite a lot of questions.

    Second, he really did try the 'complaints from both sides' defence - a discredited gambit even some of his subordinates now feel embarrassed about using on 'Newswatch'.

    Third, Samira banged on about internal BBC matters too much, especially her hobby horse - equal pay for female BBC presenters/reporters. She didn't raise the point that many feel, that the real issue is that plenty of BBC journalists/presenters are seriously overpaid.

    Fourth, the 'regrets?' bit was pure waffle.

    Fifth, except for the first question - which she didn't pursue - Samira's questions were mainly ones that left-wing/pro-EU critics of the BBC might make.

    Sixth, she managed to shoehorn in her own favourite hobby horse - her criticism that the BBC puts on Nigel Farage too much.

    Seventh, when James Harding says, "And if you look at the BBC's trust, the BBC trust levels are so much higher than any other news organisation. That's the simple fact", he's misrepresenting the polling. They are higher, but not much higher than ITN and Channel 4 News. (I bet he remembers the BBC's spin on this rather than the actual poll results).


  3. Interesting one about Nigel.

    Rob Burley had a good volley back on that with someone saying he was always on.

    Interestingly, Marr has Diane Abbott as guest. Again.

    I allowed myself a tease.

    Rob has mounted the highest of horses and is not letting go and is posing urgent questions.

    Sadly, for him, he has already set the precedent of not answering.

    I will of course answer. Just not tonight.


  4. The BBC take on science is an interesting one. It likes the climate change theory and bangs the drum for it. It doesn't like genetic studies that show a strong correlation between intelligence and heritability...Fran Unworth didn't stand up in front of the Greendford schoolkids and say "Today's science shows that at least half of your intelligence is governed by genetic factors, so that means a lot of you will already have a head start when it comes to doing well at exams, getting to university and securing a job at the BBC."

    I'm not asking her to say such things to schoolkids...I wouldn't either. Genetic theories have nasty social effects - one being that people give up on trying to better themselves. I am just pointing out the BBC hypocrisy. They pick and choose the science they like...just as we all do!

    Any environmental scientist will tell you that deprivation of natural habitat is what kills off flora and fauna. Does that science ever get a mention when the BBC "addresses" population growth and housing provision? No. They don't like that science to trump their liking for mass immigration and more "diversity".

    And then when it comes to sport...the BBC are happy to ignore all sorts of scientific findings. It's as if they've never asked themselves why there has never been an Inuit World Class High Jumper or why no Japanese person has ever won the 100 Metres Olympics event. You can talk all sorts of nonsense about sport but you can't address one of the most obvious aspects - that people with certain genetic make-ups are better at one sport than another. Likewise you can't discuss the true differential in sports performance between men and women.

    Of course while the BBC is happy to accept the male-female distinction, when it comes to social policy it drops the science and behaves as if being male or female is determined by personal choice, like putting on an overcoat.

    1. That reflects my sense of things too, though you've put it clearer than I could have done.

      I was struck recently by the BBC's coverage of a book by psychologist Cordelia Fine (inventor of the term "neurosexism") called 'Testosterone Rex' that "unmasks the myths of our gendered minds" or, as the Guardian put it, "rubbishes the idea of “fundamental” differences between men and women".

      It was a hit with non-scientific reviewers and some ideologically-minded science reporters - but, strikingly, also with the Royal Society - yet attracted very sharp criticism elsewhere for being a biased, PC polemic with feeble scientific credentials.

      I heard coverage of it on Radio 3 (Free Thinking) and Radio 4 (Inside Science and elsewhere) and all of it was uncritical.

      The book's message could hardly be more congenial to the way of thinking prevalent at the BBC.

    2. Quite.

      The BBC will entertain the most counter-intuitive BS as long as it has first been rehearsed in the pages of the Guardian (their safety blanket). It's quite easy to imagine such a BS theory. Just think of something you like and treasure and then think of a way to attack it, however bizarre.

      "Men and women watching sunsets together is a subtle form of sexism"... "Oak trees are a tired symbol of British imperialism. It's time to cut them down."..."We need to start calling boats HE to make up for five millennia of male naming domination."... "We want your suburban gardens for workers' flats. Surrender them or die."

  5. Thanks for transcribing it all etc I really appreciate the effort I really do, but I’m afraid I stopped reading when he used the complaints from both sides gambit.

    If nothing else it’s bollocks. The globalist pc side consistently try’s to stop the other side from even talking. At least the other side will try to engage, and understands (mostly) the principles of free speech.

    1. Talking about free speech, sorry your comment took so long to appear. Our over-sensitive Spam function shoved it into the bin for some reason. It's been behaving itself recently, so hopefully it's a one-off. (Flipping Blogger!)

    2. As far as the BBC, the Guardian, Amber Rudd and the Police are now concerned, free speech is the enemy. It is seen as a dangerous and destabilising thing (despite all the empirical evidence that the more free speech you have the less unstable your country is).

      Does anyone seriously think people like May, Bercow, Rudd, Dick, Khan, Corbyn, Abbott, Creasy and all the rest like free speech or want to preserve it? Boris Johnson, I would agree does have some understanding of what free speech is and why it is important. Likewise for Michael Gove. But both are far too reticent in defending it. On the Labour side there are only literally one or two MPs who perhaps understand it's importance.


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